by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Seattle State Senator Ed Murray is at the center of the state's budget process.
As chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, all state business that has anything to do with money will pass through his hands. While his will not be the only voice in deciding how the state copes with a revenue shortfall that may top $5 billion, it will be an influential one.
He spoke with SGN on February 23 about whether the state will be able to keep its core services up and running.
To give some context to the budget discussion, Murray noted that '60% of our budget can't be cut because of constitutional or federal requirements.'
Among the protected budget items are K-12 education, service on the state's debts, and some Medicaid services. That leaves a very small part of the budget to make up the $5 billion shortfall.
The state is also required to balance its budget, Murray noted, so the options are either to raise revenue or to cut spending.
Murray would have preferred to raise additional revenue, but that option was foreclosed in November by initiatives that repealed a sales tax on candy and soda and restored restrictions on the legislature's ability to raise taxes.
'We tried to [raise revenue],' Murray told SGN. 'We raised taxes only to have the voters overturn them. And they passed a law that we need a two-thirds vote to raise taxes again - or close loopholes.'
Although several legislators have proposed plans to close tax loopholes, Murray is not optimistic about their chances.
'That's very difficult to do,' he said. 'We'd need a big chunk of the Republicans to do that.'
Asked if he saw any willingness from the Republican side to raise new revenues, Murray was not hopeful.
'No. None,' he said flatly.
State law allows the legislature to suspend voter-approved initiatives two years after they have passed. In fact, it was the legislature's suspension of a previous Tim Eyman initiative that caused Eyman to put I-1053 on the ballot last November.
Asked if he thought the legislature might suspend I-1053, Murray replied, 'I can't predict two years ahead.'
'We suspend the initiatives, and Tim Eyman comes and re-instates them,' he added. 'It started with I-601. These initiatives tend to get suspended. You have to - or government just doesn't function.'
Murray did cite some successes in finding funding for core programs.
'The governor eliminated Basic Health, the Disability Lifeline, Children's Health. & We restored those programs - with Republican votes. In the Senate, we passed it on a bipartisan basis.'
'We couldn't restore 100% of the funding,' he added. 'There were cuts. So with Basic Health, for example, we have tens of thousands of people who still have health coverage. But not as many as there would have been before.
'What we did was preserve what I can call the infrastructure. So when the economy improves, we don't have to rebuild all these programs from scratch.'
Asked if the state was essentially in damage control mode, Murray said, 'Yes, that's a way to put it. Damage control. Mitigate some cuts. Make some programs more efficient. Preserve the programs we can.'
In Wisconsin and Ohio, attempts to deal with state budget problems have led to proposals to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of state employees. Asked if he thought Washington state employees' collective bargaining rights might be at risk, Murray shot back, 'No, no.'
Unlike Republican state officials in the Midwest, our state legislators are constantly in touch with union members, Murray said.
'Labor is in here every day. Several times a day,' he told SGN.
While President Obama's proposed 2012 budget keeps federal money for HIV/AIDS at the same levels as 2011 - or even slightly increases it - no one can predict whether his recommendations will be approved by Congress.
Asked if he is worried about federal funding for the state's HIV/AIDS programs, Murray answered, 'We need to be, given the Republicans in the House.'
He did note that the legislature made essentially no cuts in state HIV/AIDS spending.
'We've basically been able to hold HIV/AIDS programs harmless,' he said.
Murray is a supporter of the deep bore tunnel project that will replace the Alaskan Way viaduct. At a Publicola-sponsored debate in December, he called the tunnel project 'a stimulus package' that would help local economies.
Murray said once again that the tunnel and similar transportation projects, funded by gas taxes, are having a beneficial effect on the state's economy.
'We did our nickel in '03,' Murray said, referring to a five-cent per gallon gas tax, 'and the gas tax in '05. That money is reaching its peak now. There are projects all over the state that are funded that way. It wasn't our intention to create stimulus to deal with recession, but that's the way it turned out.'
On the other hand, Murray believes that the stimulus effect of such projects will not be enough to bring the state's economy - or its revenues - up to pre-recession levels.
'We need to be very, very realistic,' he warned. 'Even if we began to gain jobs at the same rate as before the recession, it would be 12 years before we reached pre-recession levels.'
'It will take many years to come out of this recession,' Murray added.
Murray also spoke with SGN about the marriage equality bill he introduced this year. He is the prime sponsor in the Senate and Rep. Jim Moeller (D-49) is the House sponsor.
Although Murray has introduced a marriage equality bills for several years, he says he does not foresee action on his bill this year.
'We've still got a lot of work to do,' he told SGN. 'Most legislators still haven't heard from their constituents [on the marriage issue].'
'It illustrates our ongoing need to organize outside of Seattle,' Murray insisted.
Nevertheless, Murray says he remains optimistic that the legislature will pass a marriage bill in the near future.
'It will be a few years,' he says. 'A few years. Not many years.'
Then, Murray says, 'we have to be prepared to win an initiative campaign,' like the Referendum 71 campaign, because the opponents of marriage equality will almost certainly file a repeal petition.
Asked about the possibility of running a proactive initiative to get voters to pass a marriage law, Murray was skeptical.
'That's a conversation we have to have within our community,' he said. 'First we have to build our education efforts.'
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