This Washington

Gregoire Pitches, Defends Sales Tax in State of the State Speech

By Josh Feit January 10, 2012

There weren't many surprises in Gov. Chris Gregoire's state of the state address today, which she delivered to a joint session of the legislature on the second day of this year's session.

In the run-up to the session, Gregoire had already laid out most of the proposals she announced today: An all-cuts budget with a 0.5 cent sales tax increase to buy back $500 million in cuts; a nominal call to close corporate tax loopholes to pay for basic health care for low-income people ("nominal" because it would require a two-thirds vote  of the legislature, which Gregoire has already acknowledged isn't going to happen); an education reform package focused on teacher evaluations; and gay marriage legislation. (Her call today for the sales tax and gay marriage drew sustained applause.)

Gregoire directly responded to the criticism that her sales tax pitch is regressive:
While I know the sales tax is regressive, you know what I find even more regressive? It’s cuts in education that will hit our low-income students the hardest. It’s more cuts in our social safety net to poor seniors and people with developmental disabilities.And it’s cuts to public safety that will impact our poor neighborhoods the most. Now that’s regressive!

The only new proposal in her speech was a $3.6 billion transportation package paid for largely by new fees on oil companies, electric cars, and commercial and passenger vehicles. Erica has a report on that here.

One thing Gregoire did not note in her speech---with all nine black-robed justices sitting in the front row---was last week's state supreme court ruling on education funding. That ruling explicitly says the state needs to stop cutting education. After Gregoire's speech, the state house budget leader, Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48, Medina) called Gregoire's education budget "unlawful in light of last week's supreme court ruling," adding that sending a sales tax to the voters to buy back the cuts didn't get past his own lawyers.

The Republican response to Gregoire's speech elaborated on the same theme. At a formal press conference following Gregoire's speech, Republican senate budget leader Joe Zarelli (R-18, Ridgefield) said education, along with services for the disabled, "shouldn't be on the list" of things that are subject to a public vote. "Those are the core functions of government... Other things should be on that list," Zarelli said.

Asked what should be on the "optional" list for voter approval, Zarelli said, "To me, it's just not fair to put things on the list [education, services for the vulnerable] that you want them to vote for rather than the things that are the lower priorities—not that they're not important to us and don't have a constituency, but it's the household approach: No new underwear for a while. ...No movies. No going out to dinner. Maybe I don't see the doctor this week. The priorities become food, shelter, and transportation for the job; everything else is a lower priority. I don't believe the list the governor came up with is about the priorities approach, it's more about what will people vote for."

Pressed to say what lower priorities the public be asked to weigh in on, Zarelli said:

"As passionate as the discussion is over services for illegal immigrants, is it a priority over the things the governor wants to put on the budget. The disability lifeline. Is that a priority? If we can't reform and find money, what are the things that we put on a list and ask the public? "

Gregoire's speech anticipated the GOP line.
Many believe we should just ride out the Great Recession or use this time of economic stress to dismantle our government.But that’s not our Washington. Here we build the roads and bridges our people and businesses must have to succeed. We keep our streets safe. We help the poor and the vulnerable. We educate our children and young people. ... And unlike other states, we haven’t
used the recession to undermine the environmental protections that provide
what we value: clean air, clean water and healthy natural resources.

Contrary to Gregoire's statement, the state has cut environmental programs, including a $45 million hit to the state's hazardous substance cleanup fund and 25 percent cuts to both the Department of Ecology and the Department of Natural Resources.

However, on the Republican side, while Zarelli was coy about which programs would be on his "non-priorities" list, it's clear that the Republicans aren't prioritizing the environment either.

Democratic Senate environmental committee chair Sharon Nelson (D-34) says she's concerned that Republicans will try to cut stormwater cleanup and protection programs and delay DOE permitting processes to save money in the short term. She also noted that there's a Republican push to scale back Washington State's environmental regulations—another money saver—in cases where state regulations outpace federal standards.
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