Rockefeller: Olympia can deal with tough times

Washington has seen tough times before, and has worked its way through them, Rep. Phil Rockefeller says. He is convinced the state will do so again.

“Twenty years ago, when I was on the governor’s staff, we faced a budget deficit of 11 percent, and we found a way to come up with a balanced budget,” Rockefeller said. “I’m confident that somehow, we will once again find a way to meet our constitutional obligations of a balanced budget.”

The Bainbridge Island Democrat, running for a third term in the state House of Representatives from the 23rd District, doesn’t have a formula for closing the $2 billion gap between estimated expenses and revenues for the 2003-05 biennium.

“There will be cuts, no doubt about it,” he said. “The joint legislative audit committee, of which I am a member, has done performance audits on some agencies, and not all the recommendations have been implemented.

“Some of the budgets this year will be based on the assumption that those savings will be realized, something that has been done in the past.”

And he believes new revenue will be needed. That will mean vigorously pursuing federal reimbursement for programs like special education and Medicare, and an examination of the numerous tax waivers, exemptions and deferrals that he said “have become embedded in state laws that don’t have sunset provisions.”

The revenue search could also mean a fundamental re-examination of the state’s tax structure, possibly including an income tax, he said.

“There is a growing realization that the tax system we have isn’t a good system, that it’s unfair and unstable,” Rockefeller said. “I’m not saying I endorse an income tax, but I’m willing to look at it, especially as part of a review of the whole system.”

On the critical issue of transportation, Rockefeller agrees that it would have “looked more courageous” for the legislature to have passed a funding package itself, rather than refer the matter to voters, but said, “the votes to do that simply weren’t there.”

The only bill to actually come to the House floor, he said, was the one that sent Referendum 51 to the voters this November.

In presenting only that bill, House Speaker Frank Chopp was motivated by the certainty that a citizen initiative would have challenged any legislative action, Rockefeller said.

“The failure to allow for a vote would itself have become an issue,” he said. “The speaker wanted to remove that from the table and address the merits.”

Rockefeller criticized the environmental groups who are opposing R-51 as too highway-oriented, saying that if the measure fails, an alternative might be a long time in coming.

“At some point, reasonable people will try to pick up the pieces and say ‘what can we do,’ but I’m not optimistic it will happen soon. Failure would be a very real setback, especially for the ferry system,” he said.

The two-term incumbent said he is running on a record of accomplishments in the key areas of education, health care, transportation and natural resources.

On education, he points to his work to help develop the district-accountability aspect of the multi-stage education-reform package.

He has worked on school-safety legislation, particularly a measure to require emergency planning between school districts and police and fire agencies in the wake of the 9-11 attack. And he worked on measures to open up alternative pathways to teaching certification for working professionals.

In the health-care area, he cites his work on the plan to resurrect the Kitsap Physician Service insurance company, and amendments that brought issuers of individual health-insurance policies back into the Washington market.

On transportation, he pointed to his role as the lead legislator in the so-called ferry caucus, his work on ferry funding and the Tacoma Narrows bridge bill and his role in helping to recruit Mike Thorne as new CEO of the ferry system.

He cites his role as vice-chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and his work on the forest stream-buffer measure and Puget Sound water quality.

Rockefeller said he wants to see the legislature implement objective standards for the performance of state-funded functions.

“If we don’t have measurable goals, should we be making the investment,” he asked. “We should be moving towards a focus on outcomes and results.”

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