With budget problems sprouting up like weeds in the spring, the Washington Legislature began a special legislative session on May 12.
The session, which could go as long as 30 days, is geared to tackle the state's operating and capital budget woes.
With the state's fiscal year beginning on July 1, the pressure is on to try to hammer out a budget that works for the Democratic-controlled Washington House of Representatives, the Republican-controlled Washington Senate, and Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat.
Last Friday, Bruce Chandler and Dan Newhouse -- the two state representatives who serve the local 15th Legislative District -- stopped in White Salmon while on their way to Olympia to attend party caucus meetings over the weekend.
In an informal session with The Enterprise, the two Republican legislators discussed the special session and other issues of concern to Klickitat County residents.
What is the key issue for the Legislature to address in this special session?
There are several conflicts. The House Democratic version has quite a large number of tax increases. The Senate and governor have come up with a package that does not require tax increases. That's the biggest snag I can see.
Keep in mind that state revenues in the next two years are projected to be two percent higher than they are now. The difference has to be in controlling growth in state programs. The House budget devotes most of the tax increases to cover raises for state employees or teachers. The Senate budget does more to protect social services.
Hopefully we can get it done before the 30-days. It could be a two-day session, or go the whole 30.
The voters have passed a statewide initiative calling for those pay increases for teachers. Some say that the Legislature is going against the will of the people. What do you say to those who question what the Legislature is doing in this case?
The initiatives the voters passed were different then. When that was on the ballot, voters were assured there would be no additional expense or tax increase. That's what has changed. On one hand, people want the teachers to get raises, but the outcome of this initiative would be decidedly different if in this situation.
As far as funding for the education enhancement Initiative 728 [reduction in classroom sizes], it's not growing as rapidly as expected. But it should be adequate to pursue what the school districts are doing now. Our focus is to ensure we're doing the programs we started and keep those moving forward, rather than expanding.
I-728 is going into its third year, and is scheduled to expand in 2005. We can't meet that timetable, but we'll keep the progress we've made.
In the Senate version, teachers in their first seven years on the job will get pay increases. That's about one third of that work force.
How are relations between the two political parties lately?
It'll be an interesting session. The Republicans in the House are agreeing more with the governor than the Democratic caucus has been. There is a little bit different dynamic.
It seems to be the way it's shaping up. Some are calling the governor more conservative than he used to be, and there is consternation on the House [Democratic] side.
The Senate has been more productive in getting legislation passed. Often, legislation doesn't even make it to the House floor.
Rep. Newhouse, you were elected to the Legislature just last year. Is serving in the Legislature more fun or more work than you anticipated?
It's more fun and more work. It is a lot of fun. The enjoyable thing about it is I meet a lot of interesting people. But the number of issues to deal with is larger than I expected, and the learning curve is very steep and challenging. There are some levels of frustration too, because we've been unable to fully address the state budget. But I've enjoyed my first year a lot.
This county continues to have serious economic troubles. Are there any specific programs under way that might help this area in particular?
I am now serving on the Community Economic Revitalization Board, a vehicle communities can use to help impact local economies. Hopefully, we'll be able to make available new opportunities for rural counties. I'm working to find whatever funding will fit for individual communities.
Certainly there are big challenges. This is an interesting time on the unemployment picture. In Washington, the unemployment rate is actually going down because people are giving up and leaving. The rest of the state is catching up to the fact that we are in a recessionary time. We do have a serious situation we have to face. We're trying to address that with legislation to make Washington a better climate to do business in. Some of those bills are still languishing in committees.
We understand this is not a time to increase the tax burden on people if they are lucky enough to be working.
The state of Washington should live within its means just like you and I have to. Our goal is to make that happen.
We have succeeded in providing a $1 million grant for Klickitat's water treatment plant. Each legislative chamber has passed its own version, but both the House and Senate have versions, so the prospects of keeping that funding in place are good.