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Originally published December 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 16, 2008 at 12:26 PM

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State deficit huge, but so are the requests

From the University of Washington's hope that taxpayers will help pay for a football-stadium renovation to rural lawmakers' desire to overhaul property taxes, there still are plenty of big, costly ideas floating around as legislators prepare for a historically dour session.

OLYMPIA — Think a budget deficit that could reach $6 billion has snuffed out the expensive and expansive dreams from all corners of the state? Think again.

From the University of Washington's hope that taxpayers will help pay for a football-stadium renovation to rural lawmakers' desire to overhaul property taxes, there still are big, costly ideas floating around as legislators prepare for a historically dour session.

Leading lawmakers hope expectations for the session will be tamped down once Gov. Christine Gregoire releases her proposed budget this month. Gregoire, who campaigned on a no-new-taxes pledge, is expected to present deep spending cuts.

But in the run-up to Gregoire's budget announcement, wish lists have been steadily popping up. A small sampling:

• The UW's plan to draw about $150 million from King County taxes that helped build professional sports stadiums, footing about half the cost for a renovation of the aging Husky Stadium.

• Tacoma's desire for more money to fix the troubled Murray Morgan Bridge. Rep. Dennis Flannigan, D-Tacoma, recently told The News Tribune he'll seek $25 million more from the state for that project.

• The environmental lobby's pitch for fees on polluters, raising money for government projects aimed at helping waterways, including contaminated Puget Sound.

• About $100 million in pay raises for state workers. Although raises were negotiated in new contracts with the governor, the Legislature decides whether it wants to, or can afford to, pay the bill.

• Continued expansion of health coverage for kids, including families that make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and mental- health aid for immigrant kids.

• Major changes to the way property taxes are levied, including a proposal from Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, for a constitutional amendment tying property taxes to annual measures of inflation and deflation, such as the Consumer Price Index.

• About $40 million for a new phase of the long-planned north-south freeway in the Spokane area.

Balance those against a staggering budget deficit that brings back memories of the dark times in the early 1980s.

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According to the latest projections, Washington's government checkbook will be short more than $5 billion through the 2011 fiscal year if current spending, recently added programs and growth trends remain in place.

The gulf is expected to widen as the deeply wounded economy continues to hammer consumer spending and, in turn, state tax collections. Gregoire has said state officials will be dealing with a deficit nearing $6 billion.

"What will be really difficult is if everybody comes in with exactly the same mind-set, which is typically: 'Hey, we want a raise. We need this much money. We have this great program we have to have,' " said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

"If they continue with that, it's going to be very frustrating for everybody on both sides — the requester and the legislator," she said.

One glimmer of hope for some interest groups seeking big money is an expected package of federal aid and infrastructure spending by Congress and President-elect Obama.

Obama's transition team and Capitol Hill Democratic leaders have begun working on the parameters of an economic-recovery bill in the $500 billion range, which Obama would like to sign right after taking office.

Supporters of several projects here already are making a case that their plans fit into the framework of public infrastructure that puts people to work, including Husky Stadium, the Tacoma bridge and the Spokane highway.

Randy Hodgins, the UW's lobbyist, acknowledges that seeking major subsidies in a time of historic penny-pinching may look bad. But that doesn't mean the UW or any other entity seeking money is going to unilaterally disarm before the Legislature even gets under way.

"It isn't going to get any cheaper and it isn't going to get any easier to do. It'll only get more expensive," Hodgins said.

Kessler has some sympathy for the folks who will soon flock to Olympia in search of state support. It's their job to ask for things, she said, and the Legislature's job to sort through those priorities.

But lawmakers also hope for a reality check to set in, and soon. Some are pre-emptively trying to pull expectations back.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, recently said he's planning a bill that would eliminate state boards and commissions — not to seriously target each of those small decision-making bodies for instant elimination, but to get an idea of what zero looks like, and to change the conversation.

Kessler said lawmakers may end up resurrecting a bit of gallows humor from hard times in the past, a grim take on the game show "Jeopardy!" — The answer is No. What's your question?

"I think there's a denial among people," she said. "To kind of wrap your arms around this really is difficult, because it's so big and it's so unpredictable. It's been many decades since we've faced this kind of economic downturn, and we don't even know where it's going to end."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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