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Originally published Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 9:01 PM

In Olympia, volatile mix of budget, social issues

A volatile mix of issues — not to mention balancing the budget — awaits state legislators when they convene Monday.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

State legislative session opens

House and Senate convene at noon Monday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire delivers her State of the State address at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Follow legislation and contact lawmakers at www.leg.wa.gov or by calling 800-562-6000.

Watch sessions and committee hearings on TVW (www.tvw.org, Comcast cable channel 23).

Look for breaking news on Seattletimes.com

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OLYMPIA — Lawmakers face an all-too-familiar problem when they convene Monday for a 60-day legislative session: balancing a state budget that's way out of whack.

This year's different, though. Lawmakers will also confront a volatile mix of other issues that could easily tie the Legislature in knots.

Both a sales-tax and gas-tax increase are on the table. The state Supreme Court says more money is needed for education. The governor says it's time to legalize gay marriage. Abortion is back on the docket. And then there's that plan to legalize marijuana.

Oh, and don't forget that it's an election year.

Democratic leaders maintain they're capable of multitasking and finishing in two months. Their party controls the House, Senate and Governor's Office.

History suggests they could be in Olympia much longer. Lawmakers went into overtime last spring trying to balance the budget, and went into special session again after Thanksgiving in an attempt to deal with the latest shortfall.

"I don't see how you get it done in 60 days," said Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland.

An election year can create two countervailing forces: a reluctance to take controversial votes — of which there will be many — and a desire to end the session quickly so lawmakers can raise money for their campaigns. All House seats and a half of the Senate's are up for election.

State law bans fundraising by lawmakers from 30 days before the session begins until it ends. Because of the special session late last year, legislators have been unable to raise money since Nov. 28.

On the other hand, "regardless of whether they (lawmakers) are from a liberal or conservative district, if we are to do the right thing, they are going to annoy a good number of their constituents," said Eddy, who is not running for re-election.

Budget gap

Balancing the state budget remains the hardest issue lawmakers will tackle this session. The Legislature has to close a roughly $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

This is the fourth consecutive year legislators have had to make deep cuts. No easy ones are left.

The governor has proposed closing the gap largely by reducing spending and then asking voters to buy back some of the cuts with a sales-tax increase, always a risky proposition in a struggling economy.

State law requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to increase taxes — a near political impossibility — or voter approval.

Gregoire's proposal includes cutting about $160 million from higher education; eliminating state-subsidized health insurance for the working poor to save $44 million; and freeing up millions more by allowing the early release of prisoners who are at low to moderate risk of reoffending.

More than $250 million would be saved through cuts to K-12 education, including reducing state levy-equalization payments to property-poor school districts and shortening the school year by four days.

Cuts to public schools could prove the most difficult in light of a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday that the government is failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide a basic education to all children.

The 7-2 decision told lawmakers the court would track progress on the issue but left it to them to figure out where to get the money. Lawmakers have until 2018 to fund education fully, which by some estimates could cost an additional $6 billion to $9 billion.

The Governor's Office maintains the state can still go ahead with certain education cuts, such as reducing levy-equalization.

Others aren't so sure.

"The whole budget problem just got a lot harder," said House Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina. "We may not be able to take any cuts to K-12 based on our lawyers' first reading of the thing."

Tax debate

The court decision could present an opportunity to restructure the state tax system, said Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

"I think we should look at our regressive tax system in general, and I think K-12 and higher education are the ways to have that discussion," he said, noting there are some early ideas being floated.

One proposal, from Hunter, would revamp the state property-tax system in a way that would provide more money for schools with large numbers of low-income and English-as-a-second-language students.

However, Gregoire's proposal for a temporary sales-tax boost likely will dominate discussions, at least early on.

The governor wants to send voters a referendum asking them to increase the state sales tax by a halfpenny for three years. If approved, it would bring in about $500 million a year. The money would go largely toward buying back cuts in education, with smaller amounts for public safety and social services.

This is one of the areas where the Legislature could bog down.

Republicans and moderate Democrats are demanding lawmakers adopt "reforms" before taking a vote on new revenue to help bail out the budget.

The ideas range from reducing the state's exposure to expensive tort claims to eliminating the class-size-reduction initiative, I-728, as well as I-732, which provides cost-of-living raises to teachers. Both initiatives have been suspended but are due to restart in the future.

Legislative leaders says there's no consensus on such moves.

"They have not even figured out what they're asking," Murray said.

Looming on the horizon, as well, is a battle over transportation taxes.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn expects a push this session to plug a hole in the state transportation budget, including the possibility of trying to put a gas-tax increase on the ballot.

Gay marriage and more

Gay marriage tops the list of social issues.

Gregoire and Democratic leaders say they are determined to push through legislation this session to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, contends that a gay-marriage debate "will bust things wide open in both caucuses. There will be people in the Democratic caucus and the Republican caucus who are not going to like that issue."

Lawmakers need to stay focused on balancing the budget, he said.

Murray, a leader in the same-sex marriage effort, said the issue can be dealt with without affecting budget negotiations.

"There will be a lot of attempts to say that the issue of marriage equality is somehow slowing down the budget process, but I don't believe that to be true," he said, noting he's not sure yet if he has the votes in the Senate to pass the measure.

Another hot-button issue: State lawmakers will be asked this session to require private insurance plans to cover abortion, a mandate that likely would be the first of its kind in the nation.

Backed by abortion-rights advocates, the proposal would extend a 20-year-old mandate that insurance plans funded or administered by the state cover abortion if they cover maternity care.

Also, Initiative 502, a measure that would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in Washington, is expected to go before lawmakers. Backers apparently turned in more than enough signatures last month.

Once the initiative goes to the Legislature, lawmakers have to take action or it automatically goes to the November ballot.

Given everything that's on the agenda this session, Eddy said she's keeping her calendar open beyond the scheduled end of the session.

"I'm not planning on any trips in mid-March," she said.

Material from The Associated Press and Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8267 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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