Democrats and their allies took grim pokes over the weekend at a House Republican budget plan that slashes welfare benefits and asks most state employees to take 24 days off work without pay in the next year.
But the big question is, can Democrats really do better – and can they get more money to do so? That question may be a few days off as House Democrats release their own supplemental budget plan at 9 a.m. today.
There is very little new revenue in it, according to House Democratic Caucus spokesmen. Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, says the spending plan is full of cuts deemed necessary to close the remaining $1.1 billion of a state government budget gap.
“We think we deal with the cuts a lot more fairly,” Hunt told a 22nd Legislative District town hall meeting Saturday afternoon, comparing his party’s approach with that of the House Republicans.
Hunt refused to give details of the plan.
Given the crowd’s sentiments at the town hall, Hunt’s silence might have spared him grief. Many asked Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser, Democratic Rep. Chris Reykdal and Hunt to avoid cuts in care for the elderly or for schools. Several also spoke in favor of keeping the cash bonuses given to national board-certified teachers.
State lawmakers have less than three weeks left in their 60-day legislative session. And they are gearing up to slam through a budget deal and leave town – as well as any howls of pain their budget sets loose.
In addition to the operating budget announcement, Senate Democrats are rolling out a transportation proposal today, while House Democrats lay out a new version of their $1 billion construction jobs plan.
“We’re actually very serious about getting done on March 8, if not sooner,’’ Fraser, from Thurston County, told the town hall over the weekend.
In the meantime, chances of the Legislature sending a tax package to the spring ballot are shrinking, and advocates of revenue know that.
Several groups staged rallies at the Capitol on Monday, urging lawmakers either to find a way to send Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed half-cent sales tax to a spring ballot or to do something more dramatic. One idea is a capital gains tax that could be earmarked to pay for education.
About 100 activists with Occupy Olympia carried banners and marched on the Capitol steps, urging tax increases instead of further spending cuts. A few hundred yards away near the Capitol’s Tivoli Fountain, Paul Benz of the Faith Action Network shouted to a rally of a few hundred more people that the state’s “regressive” tax system should be reformed to avoid additional cuts.
Joyce Murphy, a Department of Social and Health Services employee who helps foster children in Vancouver, listened to the speakers from under an umbrella on her day off. Murphy said that without new revenue, she thinks the children she looks after won’t get mental health treatment and other services they need.
Murphy also said workers’ caseloads in the children and family services units are well beyond what a legal settlement in the Braam case required several years ago.
Democratic Rep. Chris Reykdal of Tumwater has sponsored legislation that would radically change the tax code – phasing out some business taxes and lowering the sales tax while also imposing an income tax on individuals and businesses.
But even Reykdal – who has been loud in his calls for tax reform – told his voters at the town hall that everyone should look beyond the immediate legislative session if they want major changes. Reykdal said voters should ask all candidates for state and legislative offices in 2012 how they would fix the tax code, which he said is not keeping up with economic and population growth.
Sen. Fraser said that the court’s ruling says “in effect the state should spend $3 billion more per year on K-12.”
Advocates like Jerry Reilly, lobbyist for the Eldercare Alliance, were holding out hope that Democrats can avoid cuts to programs that help seniors stay in their homes. He said that despite the Democrats’ criticism of the GOP budget, the Republicans’ plan outlined Friday did better on eldercare issues than the governor.
Republican Rep. Gary Alexander’s budget included money for adult day health programs, for instance. But Gregoire, who left the funding out of her base budget, pledged to “buy back” some of those cut services – a move that would leave the question in the hands of voters.
At the same time, Reilly said the GOP plan cuts other pieces of the safety net that Democrats need to support – such as the Basic Health Plan’s subsidized insurance for the working poor and the Disability Lifeline for temporarily disabled people. One idea Reilly advocates is issuing revenue bonds paid by tobacco revenues, which some House Democrats have talked about.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688