Washington state lawmakers still uncertain when budget will pass

The state budget crisis and the newly-passed federal health care reform dominated a question-and-answer session with state legislators Tuesday in Bremerton.

At a reception hosted by the Port Orchard and Bremerton Area chambers of commerce, the budget impasse between legislative leadership weighed heavily on what was supposed to be a "post-legislative" review.

Senate Democrats want to pass a two-tenths of a cent general sales tax increase to help close a $2.8 billion budget gap through the summer of 2011, while the Democratic House leadership does not. The Legislature's special session, allowed to last 30 days, has been underway for three weeks.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, described the deadlock as a "family feud" among Democratic lawmakers.

Sheldon was joined by Rep. Fred Finn, D-Olympia, Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, representing districts from Bremerton south and west.

The lawmakers expressed uncertainty about when the Legislature would meet again to pass a budget.

"You'll probably know as much as we do at this point," Angel told the audience.

All four lawmakers said they voted against the overturn of Initiative 960, which allowed the Legislature to pass tax increases with a simple majority.

"I look at increasing sales tax as something that would impede our economic recovery," Kilmer said. "We need to focus on growing jobs, not on growing taxes."

The representatives agreed that the state must reevaluate its spending priorities and examine imposing furloughs on state workers.

"There has to be shared sacrifice," Kilmer said.

Angel said she would "be thrilled" if Gov. Christine Gregoire followed through on a threat she made last week to make 20 percent cuts across the board if the Legislature doesn't come to a resolution by the end of the 30-day special session.

"We haven't made the cuts we needed to make and that's why I'm so frustrated," she said.

But Finn said the Legislature must buckle down and prevent such a damaging move.

In response to questions about new federal healthcare reform laws lawmakers had few answers.

After legislators held long meetings about the laws, the "jury's out" on how they will affect the state budget, Kilmer said.

For example, the state still needs to find out what the federal government's financial commitment will be, Sheldon said.

Regardless of the remaining question marks, Finn said the new laws are positive steps in resolving out-of-control health care premium increases for small businesses and individuals.

The four legislators agreed that Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna was within his legal means to join a multi-state lawsuit to challenge the healthcare law's constitutionality, against the wishes of Gregoire and Democrats.

They did not say whether they agreed with the move, but Kilmer said the lawsuit could help resolve constitutional questions.

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