Lobbying Legislators a Team Sport

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This week, the Washington State Legislature has convened. The 2011 legislative session will challenge the 147 senators and representatives – possibly as never before in our (and their) lifetimes. They will be crafting a budget for the next two years in one of the leanest economic environments since the Great Depression.

It’s definitely not a task for the faint of heart as they will have to carve nearly $5 billion from the previous state budget. And that budget was already a lean one, having been cut by $5.2 billion in 2009 and 2010.

As budget chair of the Seattle City Council and as a board member of the Association of Washington Cities, I have been hearing a lot from city and county officials from across the state.  Legislative agendas, our legislative wish lists for the year, are popping up like winter crocuses.

Surprisingly perhaps there is significant overlap in priorities among Seattle, King County and hundreds of other cities across the State.  At an Association of Washington Cities meeting in December, representatives of the state’s 281 cities opted to push for cities’ fiscal flexibility, making it easier for local jurisdictions to allocate scarce resources to essential services. They also voted to ask legislators to protect existing revenue sources – liquor taxes for example – for local municipalities as a top action item.

The cities are being realistic, realizing that a Legislature running on empty probably won’t be able to directly help with cities problems. As an alternative, the cities are hoping that the Legislature can help by giving cities additional authority to raise revenues.

The counties, too, are looking to the Legislature for fixes.  King County Councilman Larry Phillips recently spoke at a Town Hall meeting about King County’s 2011 legislative agenda, passed that same day. Chief among the King County Council concerns are options for transit funding. King County Metro reliance on sales tax revenues has forced the agency to make significant reductions in the past two years and long-term funding remains weak. Despite cost reductions, the county is looking at a 17 percent cutback in Metro service without a better long-term funding mechanism. About 60 percent of those reductions would be for service inside Seattle.

Both King County and Seattle will be lobbying for critical state support for health, housing and human services and for tax suppression, a measure that would allow the county to continue to collect for flood control needs.  Seattle is also focused on educational reform and such critical areas as criminal justice issues, long-term solutions to transit funding, health and human service funding and the Housing Trust Fund.

Citizens are also weighing in with their own priorities.  On the first Monday of the New Year, the 46th District Legislators – Sen. Scott White and Reps Phyllis Kenney and David Frockt – met with constituents to take questions and comments on how to balance the budget. The three had a brave attitude, talking about preserving what we’ve got, maintaining our investments and working together. These are hardworking and serious lawmakers and they have no illusions. They were understandably open to the suggestions that they received that night.

They heard from citizens who want legislators to look at tax loopholes and, if not working to close them, at least finding a way of monitoring exemptions and assessing their value. On the other hand, there were others at the meeting who talked about the value of attracting jobs and businesses – especially small businesses – to the area. In other words: tax exemptions.

It’s not surprising to learn that one person’s “loophole” is another person’s “incentive.”  How the legislators will deal with these suggestions is open to guesswork. But that night, the 46th District legislative team pointed out that many of the loopholes are small, that most help preserve jobs and that some loopholes touch on such popular areas as conservation and the environment.

Something else the legislators heard was a cry for tax reform. One speaker said, “This should be the perfect time to come up with a less regressive system.”  In the best of all possible worlds, that might be true; however, it seems difficult to align that statement with the results of the recent election that turned down a high earners’ income tax along with approval of the latest Eyman initiative, 1053, which requires a two-third vote of the Legislature to pass any added taxes.

What’s more probable, according to some legislators I have spoken with, is that the Legislature may consider placing tax measures on the fall ballot for the public to consider. One idea would be to link the ballot measure – perhaps a vehicle tax – to the preservation of certain state services, like higher education and/or ferry travel. Otherwise these areas seem assured of deep cuts.

Odds are legislators won’t be lonesome in Olympia. They’re going to be closely watched and frequently lobbied by the public, as well as by cities and counties. The state’s other governments also are hurting and they’re rightly concerned that they will feel even more pain since the state won’t be able to partner with them as before.

In tough times, the wants are focused on the highest priorities – just as it should be.  And, if you’re listening, you’ll often hear pleas that at the very least, the State should do no harm.