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Legislators Hear from the Public

Legislators from the state’s 46th District held a Town Hall meeting Monday night at Magnuson Park – perhaps appropriately the venue was “The Brig,” the former Naval Air Station lockup.

The three legislators – Sen. Scott White and Reps Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney and David Frockt – are poised to take on an awesome responsibility. In the next few months, they must draw up the 2011-13 state budget, somehow providing essential state services at a time when revenues are more drastically impacted than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It is, without a doubt, the worst of times: so many needs and so little revenue.  But it also is the best of times to share the heavy fiscal burden. And, indeed, about 50 of the 46th District’s constituents showed up, eager to help, despite icy driving conditions and a last minute change of venue.

Monday’s event had been billed as “an opportunity for reform that can make government more responsive and efficient.”

The legislators started out with brief statements, shuddering over mention of a $5 billion shortfall prediction that means that the state won’t be able to continue business as usual. White talked about the need to streamline and “get more for the buck.” Kenney pointed out “the need to work together,” and Frockt said, “We must preserve what we have and maintain our workforce and our investment.”

That said, the legislators sat back and listened to questions and comments from the audience. One of the first to speak was King County Councilman Larry Phillips who brought along copies of the King County 2011 Legislative Agenda, passed that same day. The two-page agenda stresses a single objective: seeking the flexibility, tools and authority to help the county support its duty to the most critical needs of its communities.” Phillips cited the need to protect health, housing and human services and pointed out that, without other funding options than much reduced sales tax receipts, King County will need to cut Metro bus service by 17 percent.

Phillips’ comments were followed by several dozen comments from the crowd. One of the first to speak, a gentleman, insisted that the legislators “give us what we asked for – closing tax loopholes.”

The legislators responded, pointing out that, while there are several hundred so-called “loopholes,” most are small and tend to preserve jobs. Cited were tax exemptions that promote solar energy and conservation. The exemptions all have large constituencies and, in some cases, were designed to keep corporations from moving to other states or countries.

There was considerable debate about how loopholes could be closed – for instance would the latest Tim Eyman  initiative, 1053, require a 2/3rds vote to repeal or amend any tax loophole? Although the question was not answered, it appears that, since it would essentially result in a tax increase, it would require that difficult to obtain approval of the legislature.

Meanwhile, there were other comments from the audience, including a number of constituents who spoke on behalf of specific programs, such as early childhood education, higher education, completion of improvements to I-90, child health care, reforming oil and gas production export credits, environmental initiatives, the housing trust fund, and tax reform.

One speaker felt the legislators remiss in providing rundowns of possible cuts from the state budget, rather than a listing of what the state budget would continue to provide. Finally, to round out the pros and cons, a speaker spoke in favor of jobs and suggested more tax incentives, particularly for small businesses.  This, curiously enough, seems to contradict those who are concerned with “loopholes.”

In the final round, I added my own two cents, offering my thanks to the legislators for coming to the Town Hall to listen to constituent suggestions.  As budget chair for the Seattle City Council, I naturally added my support for Councilmember Phillips plea on behalf of transit funding options. If the county has to cut 17 percent of its Metro service, it will mean that Seattle routes will be affected far more than other communities. Sixty percent of the cutback would be to Seattle’s bus hours.

Seattle’s legislative agenda, passed some weeks ago, asks that, in addition to funding options for Metro, the legislature protect such critical areas as the Housing Trust Fund and the state’s disability lifeline. The City additionally will be working with the Association of Washington Cities to develop local options for fiscal flexibility and to support efforts to reform education on a statewide basis.

In his final statement, Councilmember Phillips said that the Legislature needs a better philosophy of budgeting and, perhaps at long last, a reform of initiatives that, perhaps illegally, usurp and supplant the Legislature’s constitutional authority to manage the state budget.

The legislators will not have an easy job in Olympia. But their work is bound to have the attention of an interested public.

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