Tipped off that State Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane) had gotten into a fight with Governor Gregoire over the budget when the two met on Tuesday morning (the rumor was that Gregoire ended the meeting abruptly and walked out), I checked in with Sen. Brown yesterday to see what was up.
Sen. Brown—an economics prof at Gonzaga with a dynamite record collection that she has on display in her office (The Ramones Rocket to Russia and Gil Scott Heron's The Revolution Will Not be Televised were peeking out of the stack when I dropped by)—is a rare politician: She likes the press (without having a smarmy bone in her body) and she's straight-forward (without awkwardly promoting an agenda).
Brown downplayed her recent meeting with Gregoire saying that my understanding wasn't accurate. Specifically, I'd heard Sen. Brown told Gov. Gregoire that Gregoire's all-cuts budget wouldn't fly while Gregoire tersely stood by her "No New Taxes" pledge, cutting things short on that note. While Brown did tell me that "everything's on the table" (e.g. taxes), confirming that "we want to keep that as an option," she didn't confirm any fisticuffs with the Governor.
She also said the conversation wasn't about a disagreement over taxes, but rather about the Governor's "frustration" that the legislature hadn't passed Gregoire's stimulus bills yet—a series of capital construction projects for schools and roads. "That hasn't moved as quickly as she'd hoped," Brown said. "And what she said to me was, 'Why haven't you passed these bills yet?'."
While the legislature has moved on jacking up unemployment insurance, the rest of Gregoire's package is still going through the legislative process. "It's the nature of the proecess, " Brown said. "It's a tough session."
Brown says everything is basically on hold until two things happen:
1) When the legislature knows exactly how much money Washington state is getting from the federal stimulus package
2) When the legislature gets the updated revenue numbers on the $600 million shortfall for the current biennium (the update is being expedited from its usual March release and is due on February 19th; Brown predicts revenues will be "even lower" than anticipated ... thanks X-mas sales flop—meaning the $600 million shortfall will get bigger. This is in addition to the $5.1 billion projected shortfall for the next biennium, which begins in July.)
With budget hell acting as a bigger check on the Democratic majority than any increase in GOP numbers could ever be, I asked Sen. Brown how the Democrats planned to make good on the Democratic agenda that Washington voters said they favored last November.
In short: How are Democrats going to let voters know there’s still a Democratic majority in Olympia?”
Sen. Brown cited two things that Democrats are committed to doing: Expanding children's health care and stimulating the economy with green jobs.
Brown said despite the budget crunch (and GOP opposition) the Senate Democrats are committed to increasing children's healthcare eligibility to families at 300 percent of the poverty level (it's currently at 250 percent). This year, she said, they will up the eligibility, adding coverage for 8,000 kids toward the long term goal of adding 65,000 kids by 2010. (Last year, when they upped eligibility to 250 percent, they added 35,000 kids toward the goal.)
"It's not because they [Republicans] don't support children's health care," Brown said, "but it's going to be a partisan battle because they have issues with [coverage for] kids [of illegal immigrants.] This is an issue where you'll know we're Democrats," she concluded. "We're determined on this."
On the green jobs front, Sen. Brown outlined a program to audit homes, businesses, and farms for energy efficiency and then puts people to work on a major retrofitting effort. "We're not just talking about changing lightbulbs," she said. The retrofitting bill is being sponsored by Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-23, Poulsbo, Barinbridge Is.)
I also got a chance to ask Sen. Brown about two issues I've been following in Olympia: 1) A pending bill being sponsored by Sen. Chris Marr (D-6, Spokane Area) that would amend I-937 and 2) the controversy over raising the MVET to pay for more transit as part of the $2.8 billion tunnel plan.
I-937 was the renewable energy measure passed by voters in 2006 madating that utilities increase their reliance on renewable energy like wind and solar to 15 percent of generation. I-937 did not include hydro because the intent of the bill was to expand our state's portfolio into alternative sources of energy.
Environmentalists were alarmed when they got wind of the bill because it would allow hydro to count, amending the intent of I-937. Sen. Brown said the hydro piece was about giving utilities credit for increasing the efficiency of hydro power and doing the math to see if increasing efficiency should count toward the renewables goal. And, she added, the bill will up the renewable mandate to 20 percent of sources. "The Senate Democrats are on board with increasing renewable energy," she said.
Regarding the 1 percent Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) increase: Sen. Brown seconded what we've been hearing from Gov. Gregoire and the Democratic Caucus Chair, Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill): It aint part of the picture.
"That's not going to be very successful conversation," Brown said, referring to the idea of raising the MVET.
King County and transit advocates argue, however, that raising the tax is necessary, so we can increase Metro service as part of any waterfront revamp. The 1 percent MVET increase—which would bring in about $120 million a year—was a central part of the tunnel deal that the County and transit advocates like Transportation Choices Coalition signed off on to finally bring resolution to the thorny Viaduct debate and build a deep bore tunnel.
The idea the the MVET increase was part of a tunnel deal between the Governor and King County (outgoing KC Exec Ron Sims actually) and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels didn't impress Sen. Brown. "That deal isn't part of the legislature," she said.
I asked Sen. Brown to confirm that she's running for governor in 2012. "I'm not focused on that right now," she said of the persistent talk in Olympia that she's definitely in."That's a decision for down the road."
For now, she said, she's focused on dealing with the budget shortfall while maintaining Democratic priorities. I asked if she thought the Governor's budget had abandoned that idea—referring to Gregoire's anti-Dino Rossi campaign mantra about not balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. "I wouldn't say she's abandoned it," Brown said. "She [Gov. Gregoire] hasn't had a lot of time to deal with this [the news of the $5.1 billion shortfall]," she added, explaining that the dramatic budget news came after Gregoire's reelection.
Although, Sen. Brown concluded this way: "She [Gov. Gregoire] has put out an all-cuts budget. We have a lot of concerns about it. We're concerned about the 42 percent cut in the health plan and GAU [General Assistance for the Unemployable] cuts."
Without using the words "new taxes," Sen. Brown finished by saying this of Gov. Gregoire's budget slashing: "We're looking at alternatives."