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Legislature: Democracy Showcased in Olympia

BY Howard Buck
by Howard Buck on 2/20/01.

OLYMPIA -- By the calendar, Monday was Presidents Day. But it was the people 's day, no question.

And rarely has democracy flashed its colors so boldly as it did on this sunny, daylong parade of political dissonance.

Activists swarmed the Legislature on Monday, delivering the same mixed message issued by Washington voters in recent years: Cut our taxes and red tape but not at the expense of state services or pay.

If it weren't so serious, underscored by new, dire budget estimates pushing the state further into the red, the dichotomy would have been outright laughable.

A few stolen scenes:

* Student lobbyists kicked off the day handing out packages of Top Ramen noodles, mocking Gov. Gary Locke's plan to let state colleges and universities raise tuition 40 percent during the next six years.

Outside, a sneaker-clad state worker donned a 10-foot-high professor costume sporting the slogan "Higher education doesn't mean lower wages."

School workers denied new cost-of-living pay hikes promised under Initiative 732 are livid, said Pat Bouthillette, who helps process University of Washington medical school grants.

"That's just not acceptable," she said. "We're Seattle people, and we have the same expenses" as higher-paid faculty, she said.

Of course, her employer cites lagging salaries in its push for a free hand to raise tuition.

* A noon rally on the Capitol steps drew 1,500 human-services advocates. Mental health, home care and foster care agencies are prime targets for funding cuts or freezes in Locke's 2001-03 budget plan.

Locke's advice: Raise the Initiative 601-mandated state spending limit by $ 400 million, the amount needed to pay for voter-approved initiatives 732 (teachers' salaries) and 728 (school funding), or the cuts will only deepen, he said.

"Boo! Speak up DURING the campaign, Gary," barked John Lombard, a banner-waving mental- health volunteer from Seattle.

He's mad that Locke backed those popular ballot measures without spelling out their heavy budget impact, he said.

As it now stands, the state is about $ 1.1 billion in the hole and may need $ 500 million in spending cuts, analysts said.

* Such a downer. But not so as to dampen the party inside the House chamber, where it was Kids Day.

GOP Co-Speaker Rep. Clyde Ballard of East Wenatchee did his best to entertain the youngsters.

"Who let the dogs out?" he asked, whereupon the UW Husky Pep Band suddenly appeared, striking up their fight song.

Soon after, Ballard was pitching to a different crowd, about 150 folks from the tax-cut group Citizens for a Sound Economy, who came to declare "We Want Less" government spending.

Ballard compared stretching the I-601 cap to a broke household buying "a new trip to Tahiti."

* Tim Eyman, the Mukilteo watch seller turned initiative maven, basked in sunshine while taping a television interview, as a flock of human-services workers standing nearby slung barbs.

"Thank you, Tim. Thanks A LOT," snapped one, after the group chanted a protest of transit cuts triggered by Eyman's I-695.

* Soon after, CSE members packed a House Finance Committee room, Power-Point presentation and all, to heap praise on the large federal tax cut sought by President Bush.

At most, state lawmakers could pass a nonbinding memorial bill in support of the Bush plan.

Across the hall, Appropriations Committee members were told by their GOP co-chairman that the state can little afford to cough up $ 2 million in emergency funds to help poor residents pay soaring power bills this winter.

Hope, against all odds

How do legislators, of any political stripe, reconcile such clashing agendas and demands?

Same as always, said Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Cascade Park, before briefing a CSE contingent from Clark County.

"We're doing what we're supposed to be doing: Listening to all the stuff groups say and trying to come up with a solution," Dunn said.

Not many folks will go home satisfied, sighed Rep. Marc Boldt, R-Hockinson, working to stave off deep social services cuts.

"I guess I'm telling them I'll protect 601 (spending caps), but don't count on anything else," Boldt said of the anti-tax crowd. To allies of human
services: "The only thing I have to look forward to is to find other (programs) to cut. If we can get out of this session alive, I'll be happy."

And still, perhaps there's hope for some progress, yet.

Sighted in a Capitol rotunda lunch buffet line: Eddie Eagle, feathered mascot of gun safety for the National Rifle Association, mingling calmly with members of Ceasefire Washington, ardent gun-control advocates.

Word is, the two groups are near agreement on new gun show sales rules.

"It's America, man," shrugged Martin Fleck of Seattle, Ceasefire backer from the group Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Isn't it ever.