State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, didn't shed much light on the big questions these days in Olympia -- when lawmakers will introduce a proposed 2011-13 state budget and what it might look like when they do -- but they did offer business leaders some insight Thursday into what's happening behind the scenes.
Among the highlights from their AWB Lobby Lunch address Thursday:
- The House plans to unveil its budget proposal first, and the Senate will follow about a week later.
- Don't expect the House to release its budget on a Friday - more like a Monday or Tuesday. (But probably not this coming Monday or Tuesday.)
- Look for somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 fee-related bills.
- The likelihood of lawmakers sending a referendum to voters seeking to repeal tax "loopholes" is slim, and in any case it won't make a difference for budget writers.
- Title-only bills are here to stay.
- There isn't much that can be done short of a Constitutional amendment to guarantee that lawmakers won't "sweep" fees from dedicated accounts to shore up the general fund.
Murray, chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, led off the meeting by confirming that the Senate will let the House go first this year with a budget proposal. "When that happens, we'll come out with ours probably a week later."
"This is not an easy process for anyone in the Legislature," Murray said.
At the start of the session, Murray said he told people that lawmakers needed to do some pretty unfortunate things for the next two years, but they also needed to re-set government for the next 20 years. Now nearly three-quarters of the way through the session, he said he fears they won't accomplish the second goal. "I don't think we're there yet, and I'm a little concerned," he said.
Regarding the practice of using title-only bills -- something that critics have called out as lacking in transparency -- Murray said that staff members told him it must be done in order make sure lawmakers don't get stuck at the end of the session without the ability to pass a budget.
He added that it didn't seem to be an issue when Republicans did the same thing, and he said that if any of the title-only bills that he sponsored actually move forward, they will receive a public hearing.
Hunter, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, made it clear that he would not disclose specifics about the House budget negotiations, but he spoke in general terms about how difficult it is. He blamed the difficulty, in part, on his occasionally flip responses to audience questions.
When asked whether he favored using money from the Model Toxics Control Act to help fund cleanup projects that would create jobs, for example, he said he was happy to hear that a lobbyist favors government spending when it benefits his clients.
Regarding when the House will unveil its budget, Hunter said it probably will not occur on a Friday because that would give potential critics a whole weekend to pick it apart. It will probably be released on a Monday or Tuesday and acted on the same week, he said.
On the subject of tax incentives, Hunter downplayed the odds that lawmakers would put a referendum before voters this fall seeking to repeal so-called "tax loopholes," which have become a target for some this session.
In order to get something on the ballot, Hunter said that a lawmaker must think it's 1) a good idea 2) that he or she has 50 votes for it in the House and 25 votes in the Senate and 3) he or she can defend it in the fall.
Defending it means finding people to fund a campaign to defend it from critics, said.
"If it's big enough to be interesting, you've generated too many enemies," Hunter said. He added, "Even if you put something on the ballot, you have to write a budget that assumes it fails."
When asked whether there was anything that could be done to stop lawmakers from sweeping money out of fee-related accounts and using them to plug the hole in the general budget, Hunter said no, there wasn't anything, short of a Contitutional amendment.
"There's no mechanism for you to prevent it, other than just be prudent about what you do," he said, referring to lawmakers.
Hunter downplayed the role of fees in balancing the state's next budget. The only fee proposal that would generate much money is one that would charge users of state parks, he said, adding that most states already do that.
When asked whether the House would propose one big fee bill or multiple bills, Hunter initially anwered, "yes," before elaborating and saying he would like to narrow the number from the current 53 down to 20 or 30. Attemping to pass pass one large would not make sense, he said, but attempting to pass 53 bills isn't a good idea, either.
"I mean, I'm on the floor for five days, fighting off amendments, when I could be doing productive work," he said. Fees, he added, "are not a big part of our budget solution."
Both lawmakers emphasized how difficult it will be for to reach an agreement on the budget this year, and how painful the cuts will be. Hunter said repeatedly that no one will be happy with the budget, and he questioned his role.
"I asked for this job and at this point it is not really clear to me why I did that," he said.
Programming note: Video highlights of the discussion should be posted to the blog on Friday.