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Local lawmakers set priorities

Veteran senator Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said every legislative session has a personality. She expected this one to be the “silly session,” because it is a short session in an election year, when everyone’s attention is elsewhere.

Local legislators attended a League of Women Voters brunch Saturday to hear from their constituents, and to give them a taste of the current legislative session, which started Monday.

Sen. Haugen, Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor, and Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said priorities for the 60-day session include the supplemental budget, education reforms and the state primary system.

Budget big issue

As the ranking Republican on the appropriations committee, Sehlin’s steady focus is the budget, he said.

“It will be, as always, a contentious issue,” he said.

Gov. Gary Locke has declared the state financial crisis to be over, and has proposed a $192 million supplemental budget, which the House and Senate will debate before passing the final budget for the rest of the biennium.

Sehlin said there is a perception that the state has money to spend, but in reality it is operating at a deficit.

“We have burned up the reserve,” he said.

Sehlin predicted the state will go further in the hole over the next two biennium budgets, perhaps by as much as $3 billion.

He said the challenge in the supplemental budget is to use it appropriately, for making adjustments.

“We have bills that have to be paid,” he said.

He and Bailey said the state should not use the supplemental budget to finance new programs, but to fund those already in place and in need.

With 85 percent of the state budget going to “educate, medicate and incarcerate,” Sehlin said anything else is “budget dust,” a favorite expression of his for smaller budget items.

“My concern in the supplemental budget year is that we don’t take action that will put us in a deficit situation,” Sehlin said. “Let’s not contribute to making it worse.”

Education funding concerns

Sen. Haugen hopes to see something happen in the area of education. Main issues are WASL funding, charter schools, and higher education, both in funding and increasing the number of students who enter public universities.

“We have got to start laying the foundation to put kids who graduate in higher education,” she said. A record 35,000 students are expected to graduate statewide in 2005.

Haugen hopes the legislators will look closely at the funding of education.

“We have failed miserably,” she said.

Gov. Locke is asking for $47 million of the supplemental budget to go toward education funding, from learning assistance programs to WASL testing and implementation of charter schools.

Haugen also hopes to see growth management, transportation and energy addressed in this session. She noted that the transportation budget is in the red, largely due to Initiative 776.

No discussion of state government and budgets seems complete without reference to Tim “The Initiative King” Eyman, and this brunch was no exception. A question from the participants about the latest Eyman push to limit local taxing districts sparked a round of Eyman bashing.

Sehlin said while the state has budget woes, local governments have “real problems.”

“This just makes it worse,” he said.

He offered one piece of advice to voters: “If you think fire protection will be improved by a 25 percent reduction, vote for it.”

Haugen said local governments are already asking the state for help after I-695 depleted their coffers. She felt Eyman’s latest initiative proposal would worsen the plight of local governments.

“I don’t think he realizes how many special districts there are in this state,” she said. She estimated there are 8,000 such districts funding everything from school levies to fire protection.

State primary system revamp

Sehlin expects the state primary system to be a contentious issue, with strong opinions on both sides.

The state’s blanket primary system was struck down in federal court last year. Lawmakers must come up with an alternative in time for the primary in September. Haugen said the option is to not hold a primary at all.

Alternatives on the table include a system in which the top two voter-getters advance to the general election, regardless of political party, and a system in which voters pick one party’s ballot for the primary but can vote differently in the next election.

In overturning the blanket primary system, lawmakers want voters to choose a party and stick with it.

Haugen said the top two party voting system would effectively kill the Libertarian party, which is now recognized on ballots and by the League of Women Voters in their voters information pamphlet.

Bailey completes freshman year

Rep. Bailey is going into her second year in the House, and she said her first year was quite a learning experience. She served on committees for Children and Family Services, Health Care and Transportation.

In the area of health care Bailey said the state needs to work on tort reform, as some doctors can no longer afford medical malpractice insurance.

“We need to address that,” she said.

She would also like to see affordable health insurance available for small business owners.

Bailey said the Children and Family Services committee has been the hardest. “It’s the most difficult part of my day to hear what children and families in this state go through,” she said.

Park fees opposed

Bert Letrondo, a Penn Cove resident, drew applause when he asked the legislators how voters could repeal the state-mandated $5 state park day use fee implemented last January.

“I used to enjoy the parks, now I don’t go,” he said.

Sehlin said the state was fortunate to be able to keep the parks open at all, since some states have chosen to close parks due to lack of funding.

He said state budgeteers have made cuts in other areas to keep the parks open and fees low, including higher education tuition increases, co-payment of children’s medical insurance, and closure of nursing homes.

“The $5 fee is unacceptable,” Sehlin said, “but it’s not at the top of my priority list,” he said, and he didn’t know anyone in the legislature who would put it on the top of their list.

“Some decisions are unpopular and unpleasant,” he said. “No one in the legislature found it acceptable, but it’s better than closing the parks.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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