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Area lawmakers cast wary eye on 2005 legislative session

Even though as of today (Thursday) there is still no clear cut winner in the historic state gubernatorial race, Sunnyside area lawmakers are preparing to head back to the state capital for a new round of action when the state legislature convenes on Jan. 10.

While Republican governor candidate Dino Rossi announced his intention to call for a revote in his challenge for the state's top seat, Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside) voiced concern that his action might be in vain.

"I'm not optimistic that a revote will change much," said the long-time Sunnyside lawmaker. Beside, the state law doesn't cover the possibility of a revote. "The whole issue may end up in court," Honeyford said.

In any case, until either Christine Gregoire or Rossi is officially named state governor, Gov. Gary Locke will remain in office, said Honeyford.

Of more concern to area lawmakers is the fact that the 2004 election has shifted the balance of power in the legislature.

With both the House and the Senate now in the hands of the Democrats, Honeyford and GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, as well as Rep. Bruce Chandler (R-Granger), will find themselves on the defensive when trying to get issues passed during the upcoming session. The trio believes only a handful of bipartisan issues will be passed while the Republicans go on the defensive to maintain some kind of lid on spending.

"I think we'll see a lot of pressure brought to bear to ensure that our view is heard. I hope there will be opportunities for bipartisan issues to get passed," said Newhouse, adding he fears the Democrats will be able to do what they want.

"It's an all new situation," he added.

Both Honeyford and Newhouse are approaching the upcoming session with caution with an eye on their top priorities, which for Newhouse involves water right issues and for Honeyford health care, as well as water rights.

Newhouse sits on the economic development and agricultural committee. He said he will be working to preserve water rights. "I'll be closely examining the Columbia River Initiative, which is primarily concerned with the amount of water available for municipalities, while providing for fish," he explained.

"I think we are going to see a lot of debate on the issue as well as the state's "lose or use" water issues," he said.

Honeyford and Newhouse said the recently introduced dueling tort reform initiatives will also be the subject of many debates.

Honeyford said he feels the issues, which argue for and against placing caps on malpractice case damage awards, will ultimately end up before the voters next fall.

"The legislature has been at a deadlock on the issue, which is reaching critical levels in the state. The initiatives will force us to do something," Newhouse said.

One issue Honeyford and Newhouse fear will cost the state taxpayers money will be a possible shift in unemployment insurance. Republicans were successful in establishing unemployment reform, calling for benefits to the unemployed to be paid based on an average of four quarters of work, Honeyford said.

However, Democrats want to push that back to two quarters, said Honeyford.

The state budget will also be plaguing the lawmakers in 2005, especially since Gov. Locke's budget proposal is now before the lawmakers. While Gregoire and Rossi have indicated neither will be calling for new taxes, the eventual governor may present an entirely different budget to the lawmakers which could create a different set of issues, Honeyford explained.

He said the budget for education and social services, which commands 80 percent of the budget, are fairly locked in. "That leaves only 20 percent of the budget open to debate," he explained.

"I think we can look forward to the Democrats arguing for a number of state fee increases in an effort to pick up more funds," Honeyford said.

He said the biggest increases may come in the area of the B&O taxes. "They (Democrats) are looking to expand there," he said.

Honeyford also said he thinks there will be a push to increase stream flows and a move to approve a simple majority for school levy passages.

"We may get some bipartisan things passed," he said. "But if we don't, the session will prove to be very costly for the taxpayers," he said.

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