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New political dynamics, budget challenges face state lawmakers

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Washington lawmakers convene for the start of the 2013 session. They face a $2B budget problem, an unusual political dynamic in the state senate and hot button issues like gun control.

It’s like Downton Abbey. A new season of the legislature begins with plenty of intrigue and tensions between powerful personalities. There are familiar faces and new ones. Chief among them Governor-elect Jay Inslee.

Jay Inslee: “We’ve got fiscal challenges, we have some creative and different situations in the state senate, we have ideas that are contentious.”

One of Inslee’s first jobs: write a balanced budget. He’ll need to fill a shortfall pegged today at $900M and come up with new money for public schools to respond to a Washington Supreme Court ruling. How much for schools?

Jay Inslee: “I have a number in my head, but I can’t tell ya I have the money in my pocket.”

Inslee says he’d like to hit his campaign goal of $1B more for schools in the next two year budget. He calls that “reasonable,” but says there’s no guarantee. As for taxes, Inslee continues to say he’s open to closing some tax exemptions. But as he did on the campaign trail, the governor-elect maintains he intends to solve the budget conundrum without a general tax increase.

Jay Inslee: “I still believe that is the way forward.”

Some of his fellow Democrats disagree. Here’s Senate Democratic leader Ed Murray of Seattle.

Ed Murray: “We have a revenue system that is out of whack that will not pay for the services that the people of this state want, not Democrats, but the people of this state want.”

Murray floats the idea of a state capital gains tax. But the new senate majority, of 23 Republicans and two breakaway Democrats, has made it clear: taxes, revenue – whatever you want to call it – is pretty much a non-starter. Here’s Senator Rodney Tom, the Democrat who will lead the new majority coalition in the state senate.

Rodney Tom: “I think we are spread way too thin in government. We’re trying to be all things to all people. We’re doing things in a mediocre manner.”

Tom suggests, for instance, ending the popular, but expensive pre-paid tuition program for higher education known as GET. Lawmakers and the governor have the next 105 days to hash out these tough issues and then find consensus, if not common ground.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.