Washington state's Legislature convened a new session Monday, pausing to argue over campaign tactics before moving toward the serious work of correcting a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
Broad spending cuts are expected to bring the state's roughly $37 billion two-year budget into balance before it takes effect in July. Voters made raising taxes nearly impossible by rejecting several tax increases and reinstating a two-thirds legislative majority or statewide voter approval for future tax hikes.
Lawmakers also must balance the current fiscal year's budget, which is running a smaller but troubling deficit. State Treasurer Jim McIntire recently warned legislators that failure to act quickly on that budget problem could jeopardize the state's credit rating, potentially costing hundreds of millions of dollars in financing costs.
Advocates of state programs protested the drive toward spending reductions, delivering what they said were thousands of petition and postcard signatures to the Legislature's Democratic leaders. Protesters called for elimination of tax exemptions before cutting services.
"It doesn't make sense to eliminate the voter-approved Basic Health Plan when we are still providing subsidies to Wall Street banks," said Jim Dawson, spokesman for the Our Economic Future coalition.
The opening day's usually scripted events were interrupted by an unsuccessful attempt to resist seating a newly elected Democratic senator from Snohomish County.
The state Constitution allows legislators to reject other members after they're elected. That hasn't happened since 1941, when a former Communist Party member was denied a seat.
At issue Monday were the tactics of a liberal political consultant who failed to report the sources of some campaign money in the 2010 primary won by Sen.-elect Nick Harper, D-Everett.
Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna has sued consultant Lisa MacLean of Moxie Media and others in the case, which was referred to McKenna by the bipartisan Public Disclosure Commission.
Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, moved to reject Harper as the new senator from the 38th District, saying the campaign-finance controversy had tainted that election.
"The issue is not Sen.-elect Harper," Kastama said. "The issue is a conspiracy to deceive voters of the 38th District that changed the outcome of the legislative primary."
The attempt to reject Harper was defeated on a 23-18 test vote nearly along party lines. Harper had previously criticized Kastama's move as "a political grudge," and the idea was strongly opposed by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
Initiative promoter Tim Eyman also made his annual appearance, filing another initiative to require a two-thirds legislative majority or voter approval for any tax increases.
The same policy was reinstated by voters in November as Initiative 1053, but Eyman said he was trying to get ahead of any legislative moves to amend the measure.
State lawmakers need to meet a difficult two-thirds vote threshold to amend initiatives for the first two years they are in effect, but may make changes by a simple majority vote after the two-year ban expires. Eyman said he plans to run the same tax-limiting policy every two years to keep it in effect indefinitely.
Eyman opponent Andrew Villeneuve also filed an initiative that would require a two-thirds legislative vote to create new tax exemptions. The proposal also seeks to alter I-1053's definition of tax hikes, reinstating simple majority votes to repeal a tax exemptions.
Associated Press writer Manuel Valdes contributed to this report.