State leaders talk budget, policy and more

The sickly state budget dominated discussions March 17 when Washington journalists trekked to Olympia to hear from legislators and the state’s elected department heads.

Those who control millions of taxpayer dollars and oversee thousands of employees took turns lamenting the state of the budget on a day when new projections were announced. By mid-day, all knew the budget gap had reached $5.1 billion.

The following are a few quips, quotes and pertinent points shared with members of the Fourth Estate.

Rep. Pat Sullivan, House majority leader, on a spending plan that will eventually come out of the current session of the legislature: “There’s going to be something in the budget everyone will dislike.”

Sen. Mike Hewitt, minority leader, on trying to draft a biennial budget while facing a budget discrepancy of more than $5 billion: “It’s not much fun to be in the legislature right now, frankly.”

Sen. Lisa Brown, majority leader, on how the legislature will bridge the financial gap: “It’ll be an all-cuts approach to addressing the shortfall,” she said, while admitting she would like to examine some new funding sources.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, assistant ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, emphasizing the need to create jobs: “Where are the bills to get people working again in this state?

“Small business is going to get us out of this crisis.”

Orcutt again, addressing the possibility of the current 105-day session going into extra days: “If we can’t afford to run the state, we can’t stay here.”

State Auditor Brian Sonntag, on transparency in government: people in Olympia like to talk about openness, he said, but “they get amnesia” when the policy doesn’t suit their needs.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn: “Sometimes I make people kind of uncomfortable. That’s OK, that’s my style.” Predictably, he disagreed with the governor’s suggestion that public education be placed in the hands of an appointed official, rather than an elected department head.

State Treasurer Jim McIntire, a self-described “tight Scotsman” who is charged with watching the state’s dollars and cents: “Washington is a high-debt state,” he said, explaining the Evergreen State is in the nation’s top 10 when it comes to per-capita debt.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, who pointed out after 11 years he’s still talking about the state’s primary election system: “Caucuses are a crock,” he said, stressing that Washington deserves a presidential primary and defending the old-style “open primary” where voters can support any candidate, regardless of party.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, on the healthcare industry: “It’s the beast that has a limitless appetite.”

McKenna, again, on whether Washington could experience labor unrest like that found recently in Wisconsin: “The problem isn’t collective bargaining, it’s weak bargaining.”

As expected, McKenna played coy when asked if he will run for governor when the opportunity next arises. He agreed he’s viewing issues from a broader perspective these days, but wouldn’t go any further.

Department of Transportation Paula Hammond, on the multitude of projects either recently finished or under way: “You see barrels and cones everywhere.”

Gas tax increases in 2003 and 2005 funded 421 highway projects, she said, before explaining how gas tax revenues shrink as people drive less and buy fuel-efficient automobiles.

Eldon Vail, with the Department of Corrections, on the timely topic of violence behind prison walls: “Bad things are going to happen,” he said, when the agency deals with 17,000 people who are incarcerated and another 20,000 on community supervision.

There have been 243 aggravated assaults in the state’s correction facilities during the past three years, he said.

John Batiste, chief of the Washington State Patrol, after telling that 45 new troopers were recently assigned to posts throughout the state: “They’re green and they’re eager, so be watchful,” he said, drawing a laugh.

Turning serious, Batiste related that Washington leads the nation when it comes to accidents related to drunk driving. Washington is one of only 10 states without DUI checkpoints, he said, vowing to continue lobbying for the random checks.

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