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Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown stopped by Seattle Weekly 's offices today on her way to meet House Speaker Frank Chopp to discuss a potential

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Lisa Brown Talks Tax Policy, Gay Marriage, a Potential Run for Governor, and Other Fun Stuff

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Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown stopped by Seattle Weekly's offices today on her way to meet House Speaker Frank Chopp to discuss a potential special session (the likelihood of which she said was "50/50"). Here's what she had to say on a number of subjects, including the need to reform Washington's tax structure, the fight for gay marriage, and the likelihood that she'll seek higher office. (Questions are paraphrased for brevity's sake):

On Democrats' failure to submit a revenue package to voters to avoid cutting important programs:

"I can speak specifically about the Senate Democrats. We had a lot of interest in making up for some of the very devastating cuts to health care and human services and education. Especially early in the session, there was momentum for putting proposal out to voters in November.

"A few things happened that made that less likely: Stakeholder groups doing polling found public support eroding steadily during the course of session. The second factor was that there were two proposals: A high-earner income tax proposal actually had quite a bit of support in the Senate, while the House did sales tax dedicated just to health care. In the end there just wasn't enough support for either of those. It wasn't so much that the legislature didn't want to do it as that they didn't sense the public would end up ratifying it."

Could this have been a result of the legislature's failure to lead or advocate on these issues?

Brown noted that some stakeholders bought ads advocating revenue packages, and that a tax increase had early support from the Washington Education Association, which later backed off. But she added, "I think the real issue is that when you talk about a budget cut, you don't feel it. People are gonna feel budget cuts in the fall, after the fiscal year, when teachers are laid off, when people lose the Basic Health plan, when people lose day health services...I don't think there's widespread recognition of what that means at this point."

The legislature modified or looked at modifying several initiatives this session--class size, cost of living increases for teachers, and renewable energy. The last time there was a special session, the Democratic leadership reinstated an initiative--I-747--that it believed was bad policy. Are Democrats giving more deference to conservative initiatives than progressive ones?

"I've personally never been afraid to vote to modify an initiative. Initiative 695, when it was ratified by the legislature, I voted no to that. I think that you can stay true to the spirit of an initiative and still address the details. With respect to Initiative 937, I was actually involved in the beginning when it was being written, suggesting changes, and I still stand by those changes.

"I personally don't stand by the letter of every initiative like it can't be modified...728 [class size] and 732 [teacher pay], they were initiatives without funding, so they ended up getting cuts. [As for I-747, the] point is well taken. That restriction is burdensome to local governments; I think it should be equal to inflation rather than to the one percent."

On the bill--likely to be raised in a special session--that would allow school districts to raise more of their own money, while taking away some of the money that the state previously gave to districts with lower property values:

Brown said that it makes sense to allow districts that want to raise more money to do so, and argued that federal money should smooth out any accompanying cuts to less affluent districts (a solution that wasn't in the final version of the bill). As for the accusations that the bill is unfair to poorer districts, she said that a bigger picture examination shows that the problem is a lot more complex:

"The levy equalization formula is very unwieldy--[for example] you don't get any [money] if your district doesn't pass a levy...[She adds that shopping centers, for example, canraise property values and make a district appear more affluent than it is, thus disqualifying it from getting the additional state money.] The way levy lids are currently set, Seattle has 31.9 percent, Spokane has 24 percent--there's inequality already there. There's a lot of inequalities built into the system right now....There are still salary inequalities in certain districts, they've been grandfathered in. To pick out levy equalization is just one piece. It looks more unequal in isolation than if you look at the whole."

On why the Senate's budget would have cut the General Assistance-Unemployable Program by 80%:

"On health care, part our approach was to move more people from GAU onto managed care. On the grant side of equation, we were trying to manage caselaod by creating more ways for people to be diverted before they got on GAU and more ways to get off. The House perspective was 'don't touch it.' It's painful to cut it, but it's also painful to cut 40,000 people off the Basic Health program. They cut higher ed a lot more; our K-12 cuts were deeper. In the end, it's a zero-sum game."

The Governor seemed slightly more open to tax proposals as the session went on and the numbers got bleaker. Do you think that's something she'll continue to become more open to in the future?

"It's hard for me to know where she's coming from on that. I assume it partly depends on if and when economy turns around. Without federal stimulus dollars, the next time we have to do a two-year budget, it's gonna be very bleak. We had $3 billion in federal money...I don't know what we would have done without it. I don't think we could have avoided raising revenue without it."

On East/West, Urban/Suburban/Rural, Everyone/Seattle divides in the legislature:

"My sense is that it's more urban/suburban/rural -- the distinct interests of each type is what the differences are about...There is a history in Spokane of public officials justifying not being successful in the legislature by blaming Seattle. I try not to buy into that. And clearly, being in the leadership, it wouldn't make sense."

On potential runs for higher office:

"I haven't made any decisions. I feel very fortunate to be a leader and have a majority...Working with the Senate Democrats, I've been able to move forward on a lot of pieces of a progressive agenda that I feel good about...[but] I haven't ruled out running for Governor. It depends on what the field looks like."

Any other offices?

"I'm often encouarged to run for congress. The 5th congressional district is tough...for years, I didn't want to do single parent, [but] my son is a junior in high school right now. At this point, I really love the state level of government."

You've said you wouldn't run against Gregoire.

"No, I'm not gonna run against her."

What if she continues to oppose new revenue packages?

"I guess I shouldn't rule it out completely. All in all, that being a fairly notable exception, I feel like I have a good working relationship with with Governor, and with the House, for the most part." This relationship, she adds, enables them to enact their agenda more effectively.

What will it take to get the public to come around on the need to raise revenues/address our tax structure?

"I do think over time we need some fairly bold leadership to take on this revenue structure question. It really is the structure of our system is not competitive. The B&O tax sticks out like sore thumb compared to other taxes around the country and is so inequitable. And now we're hitting a wall with sales tax--I don't think we can go up over 10% with the sales tax, and it's unstable. At some point we have to take that on.

"It's a continual education process. The thing about changing tax structure is that there's a lot of uncertainty about it, so people tend to fall back and just want the status quo -- and that means business as well as the average family. But ultimately, I think that more and more people will understand that there's more to be gained than lost.

"What happens with our current structure is that our more powerful economic interests -- major companies like Boeing, major industries, can go in and get a fix for their specific problems. But then that just erodes the tax base further and shifts more onto everyone else. So small businesses and middle class families have a lot to gain by changing the tax structure. I think, ultimately, with a public education effort, people will see that's in their best interest.

"I think the Obama Administration helped a lot by talking about tax equity."

Why was Obama able to reach Washington voters with that message whereas Washington politicians haven't been able to?

"The opposition to his message...the Bush Administration was discredited at the federal level. I think at the state level, the opposition to that message still has an effective voice. Eyman, plus major elements of the Republican party. The anti-tax message is part of their anti-government message....They're a very vocal, organized and well-funded minority...and they have the advantage of being able to appeal to people's natural skepticism about government, and to people's fears. The ability to say, 'It's $250,000 and above today, but what about the next day? They're going to get you.'"

On gay marriage, which she supports:

"I feel confident every year that the public support gets stronger. I think that the incremental approach that the GLBT community ultimately came together around with the legislature has proven to be a good approach....Each time we've passed a bill, it's created the opportunity for more education....When i look at my son's friends and they're like, 'why is this even an issue?' It makes me very optimistic. I voted on the civil rights bill first year in legislature in '93....For me, a very gratifying part of being part of the legislature is being involved in this civil rights expansion."

 
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