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Sunday, January 13, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Not year for new initiatives

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

Top issues

The budget: Gov. Christine Gregoire wants to put $1.2 billion in savings and spend an additional $237 million to cover cost increases for existing services and to pay for such new programs as patient safety and flood relief. Republicans say the budget should be cut and even more put into savings.

Transportation: Expect new toll legislation. Also look for bills dealing with new ferries and for a flood-prevention project along Interstate 5 in Lewis County.

Housing: Democrats propose a $50 million expansion of the state Housing Trust Fund to help flood victims and low-income people. They also want more money to help low- and moderate-income people buy their first home.

Environment: Lawmakers will consider bills to implement the state's new global-warming law.

Education: Legislators continue to study the state's standardized test, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. A new University of Washington branch campus in the Everett area may be on the agenda.

Family leave: Lawmakers will debate how to finance a new paid family-leave program.

Health care: Senators propose requiring pharmacists to stock the so-called Plan B "morning-after" emergency contraceptive pills. Gregoire has a package of patient-safety bills.

Public safety: Lawmakers plan to crack down on sex predators and take up Gregoire's proposal for sobriety checkpoints for drunken drivers. Gang legislation is expected.

The Associated Press

Washington Legislature

Dates to watch

Monday: Session begins at noon.

Tuesday: Governor's state-of-the-state address at 5 p.m.

Feb. 19*: Last day for bills to be considered in their house of origin.

March 7*: Last day for bills to be considered in the opposite house.

March 13: Session ends.

*Tentative dates

Key lawmakers

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane

360-786-7604 brown.lisa@leg.wa.gov

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla

360-786-7630 hewitt.mike@leg.wa.gov

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle

360-786-7920 chopp.frank@leg.wa.gov

House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis

360-786-7896 debolt.richard@leg.wa.gov

Track legislation

Legislature home page: Identify your senator and representatives, get links to all legislators, find lists of legislative committees and their agendas, read and track legislation. www.leg.wa.gov

Legislative hotline: Call toll-free for information about the legislative process or to leave a message for a particular lawmaker. 800-562-6000

TV coverage: Watch coverage of both the House and Senate on TVW, Washington state's version of C-SPAN. TVW also provides online audio and some video coverage of all committee hearings. www.tvw.org

Washington Votes: Nonprofit Web site lets you check a lawmaker's voting record, track legislation, post comments and send e-mails to legislators. www.washingtonvotes.org

OLYMPIA — State Democratic leaders say they want to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, pay for a new Highway 520 bridge, boost teacher salaries and increase access to health care.

Just not this year.

After all, elections are looming and the legislative session, which starts Monday, only lasts 60 days.

"This isn't a year of launching new initiatives," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

Democrats, who control the House, Senate and governor's office, say they need time to study the most controversial and pressing problems facing the state.

Instead, their agenda covers a lot of issues that don't cost much, in terms of money or political capital.

Some seem at least partially aimed at robbing Republicans of campaign fodder.

Democrats, for example, say they'll get tough with sex offenders by tracking where they live, collecting DNA samples and expanding electronic monitoring.

And party leaders say they want to set aside at least $1 billion of a tax surplus in the state budget to act as a buffer against a looming recession. Some of the money would be placed in a hard-to-tap "rainy day" savings account created last year.

Republicans have hammered Democrats during the past year for not doing enough to protect the public against sex offenders and to save any surplus tax money. Plus, the rainy-day account was a GOP idea.

Democrats also say they'll make property-tax relief — another hot topic for Republicans — a priority this session. They'll consider a so-called homestead exemption that shields a portion of the value of a primary residence from taxes. But it's not clear if they have the votes needed to take action.

The November election will surely color the actions of both parties, fueling partisan spats and posturing as they hone their messages for the final months of post-session campaigning.

Just talk to House GOP Deputy Leader Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

One of the top priorities of House Republicans in the next two months will be to "let people know about the culture of failure" of Democrats, he said. "We're going to be talking about it nonstop."

Even interest groups seeking more money from the Democrats are using the election to press their case.

"This is the last chance for Democrats to send a message to voters about the value of a Democratic-run state government," said Adam Glickman, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, which wants better pay and benefits for nursing-home workers.

"If Democrats can't do anything about health care or the mortgage crisis or skyrocketing energy costs, if Democrats can't address these issues, people are going to start asking, 'What's the value of having overwhelming majorities and a Democratic governor?' "

Much of what happens between now and March 13, when the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn, will revolve around the state's projected $1.4 billion surplus.

Gov. Christine Gregoire wants to set aside $1.2 billion in case the state goes into recession. She'd spend the rest, about $237 million, on new programs and to cover cost increases for existing services.

Gregoire has positioned herself as the defender of the surplus, saying she's being pressured by interest groups and legislative leaders to spend more.

The Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, wants more than $100 million to increase pay for teachers.

A program created by the Legislature last year, a state-run, paid family-leave program, needs funding to go forward. Lawmakers failed to put any money into it last session. A legislative task force recently suggested tapping the state's general fund to pay for the program — a strategy Gregoire opposes.

And then there are the groups that want bold action to provide relief to homeowners from rising property taxes and to expand access to health care.

Yet House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Brown, the Senate majority leader, said they're in line with Gregoire in terms of saving money. They both want the Legislature to set aside more than $1 billion of the state surplus.

With leadership in lock-step, it's unlikely interest groups will succeed in pushing for large increases in spending.

Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said he's gotten the message. His group, a major supporter of the Democratic party, has no large budget requests this year.

"If you take a look at the climate out there, overall the Democrats are looking pretty good going into 2008 and I'm sure they don't want huge controversies occurring in the 60-day session," Bender said. "I know they want to get out on time, if not earlier, and I know the governor wants a pretty strong surplus in terms of the budget. Our agenda will not be a huge one by any means."

Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, said his group wants lawmakers to show restraint in spending this session. There's a good chance that's what will happen, he said, noting, "Most of the real meaty legislation is being pushed to 2009."

The Legislature is expected to appoint a panel this session to study options to fill a roughly $2 billion funding gap to replace the Highway 520 bridge, which is vulnerable to collapse in a severe windstorm or earthquake.

On Thursday, Gregoire said the money should come from tolls, including tolls placed on the existing bridge as soon as next year. But a final decision on the funding plan isn't expected until next year.

Lawmakers also won't decide until next year how to replace the one-mile section of the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle's waterfront. The governor is working with Seattle and King County officials to come up with a compromise after the elections.

On health care, the Legislature plans to continue studying proposals to expand access and look at what other states are doing. And lawmakers appear likely to push the issue of a major salary increase for teachers into next year. Finding funding for paid family leave could be pushed into 2009, as well.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said leadership will try to keep costly and highly controversial issues at arm's length this session.

"There will be a lot of things proposed that will never see the light of day, I'm sure," she said.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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