The 2010 Legislative Session
In many ways, the upcoming 2010 Legislative Session will be even more challenging than what we encountered last year. When lawmakers return to Olympia in January, they will be dealing with a $2.6 billion budget deficit.
Even though it is less than the budget shortfall last year, this year's problem is actually more challenging in many respects. Last year, there was the assistance of federal stimulus money. Not so, this year. Last year, there were opportunities to find more efficient ways to spend money and get similar outcomes. This year, those opportunities are pretty much gone.
No more tweaks available--whole programs are on the chopping block.
Furthermore, we are heading into what promises to be another contentious midterm electoral cycle.
The debate about how to address the budget shortfall will dominate the session and will center on a few cores questions:
Solve the budget crisis through cuts? If so, what will they cut?
Or, turn to new revenue. If so, raise new revenue in Olympia?
Or, send it to the ballot for voters' approval? And what kind of new revenue package is it? Income tax? Increase the sales tax? Eliminate tax breaks? Other ideas?
All the possible answers to these questions are complicated both on the policy side as well as politically. Consequently, the budget debate will soak up most "if not all" of the Legislature's bandwidth, making it even more difficult than usual to make substantive progress on policy issues.
We took all of this into account when developing our agenda for the upcoming session.
This is primarily a defensive oriented session; our first objective is to preserve the wins we have had in the past. But, we will still look for good opportunities to move forward, especially on transitioning off coal, in developing clean energy, and stabilizing transit funding.
BUDGET: Our objective on the budget will be to make sure the cuts do not wipe out the essential, core functions of the natural resource agencies. Last year, environmental programs took a disproportionately bigger budget cut than any other area. To the extent there will be cuts, we will seek to direct them to areas of the natural resource budget that are less vital so we may protect our rivers and lakes, state parks, and public health.
COAL: As hard as it is to believe in the midst of this budget crisis, the state still continues to provide tax breaks for coal. It makes absolutely no sense for Washington to continue to provide subsidies for last century's dirty industries. We plan to bring back legislation from last year that would end the tax breaks for coal and to redirect the money into developing the clean energy economy, particularly in Lewis County, home to the state's only coal plant.
CLEAN ENERGY: We will continue to push for ways to accelerate the development of clean, renewable energy and energy conservation programs. I-937, the Clean Energy Initiative that passed several years ago, is still a hot topic. We have engaged in conversations with key stakeholders since the compromise bill died last year. We are hopeful that we will be able to reach a new compromise before session starts this year. In addition, there may be opportunities to expand energy retrofit programs to make older buildings more efficient.
TRANSIT FUNDING: Transit agencies across the state are facing severe budget shortfalls. Consequently, many of them are contemplating cuts in service. The problem arises in part because transit agencies rely heavily on sales tax revenue for their operating budgets. Our first objective is to prevent cuts in transit service in the short term, but we are also looking for ways to make transit more sustainable in the long run.