OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington lawmakers have adjourned their special session without re-balancing the state budget -– as the governor had demanded. Instead, majority Democrats took a modest bite out of the $1.4 billion shortfall.
But they left the tough decisions for January. That's when a group of fiscally conservative Democrats will hold particular sway. They call themselves the "Roadkill Caucus" because they've often felt run over by the left and the right. Now they're standing up.
Meet State Senator Jim Kastama, a member of the "Roadkill Caucus." Or perhaps we should call him Professor Kastama as he fires up his iPad and walks me through a line graph of the Washington state budget.
"It's fairly simple," Kastama explains. "You see on this side billions. Over here you see the fiscal years."
And what the lines show is something surprising. For all the budget cutting we've been hearing about, Washington is still projected over the next five years to spend more money than it takes in.
"So we'll have a shortfall of $3.3 billion in 2017 and that's an annual deficit," he says. "This is monumental."
Kastama's rough numbers come from non-partisan Senate budget committee staff. However, the governor's budget office is working on its own more detailed outlook and says Kastama's spending projections seem high.
Nevertheless, here's Kastama's point. Even if lawmakers ask voters for a temporary half-penny hike in the state sales tax –- as Governor Chris Gregoire is urging — he argues it won't solve the state's long term structural deficit.
And he worries about squandering the goodwill of voters.
"We're going to ask them to vote for more taxes, whether they be more sales tax or other taxes," Kastama says. "We're going to have to tell them that we won't be back here next session asking for the same thing and threatening to cut those same programs again."
So Kastama has adopted a Republican mantra: "Reforms before Revenues." That means he wants to resize and reshape Washington state government before he'll commit his vote to a tax package.
Over in the House, Representative Deb Eddy echoes that. She's a former suburban mayor. She says her city based budgets on six year horizons, not two years like the legislature.
"If we're going to have sustainability over what many of us see as maybe a six to ten year rocky period then we simply can't say 'okay we just need to raise revenue and then we're done," Eddy says.
"Roadkill" Democrats have a long list of ideas about how to do this. Repeal two popular, but expense voter initiatives to reduce class size and increase teacher pay. Require state employees to pay more for their health care. Suspend the "1/2 of 1 percent for arts" program.
Then there's the proposal to appoint an outside commission to recommend ways to shrink the footprint of state government. Senator Brian Hatfield, another "Roadkill Caucus" member, suggests putting that proposal on the ballot along with a tax hike.
"A very public way of showing folks here's what we're trying to do to reform and to reduce the footprint of state government, but we still need the revenue to keep these vital services going," Hatfield says.
When I asked Governor Gregoire about the "Roadkill Caucus" position that her sales tax proposal won't solve the long-term budget problem, she got defensive.
"No one has come to me, Austin, with any big new ideas that will immediately solve a $2 billion fiscal crisis in this state," Gregoire says.
And that's the first order of business, says Gregoire.
Chris Gregoire: "Now do I believe in reforms? Been doing them."
Reform is also a priority of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. She really is an economics professor, but doesn't buy into the long-term budgeting approach.
"I wouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves in solving the problem six years from now," Brown says. "My profession of economics just doesn't do that good of a job in predicting in the long term where you're going to be."
Brown may disagree on how to size up the problem. But she can't ignore the members of the "Roadkill Caucus." Her thin majority in the senate depends on them.
Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network