By RACHEL LA CORTE and MIKE BAKER
OLYMPIA, Wash. – Top state lawmakers were split on whether the Legislature should be taking votes on gay marriage during the state’s budget crisis, with Republican leaders saying it will create an unnecessary distraction.
Speaking during the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview on Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt said the gay marriage debate particularly would create problems because Democratic budget negotiator Ed Murray is “vested in this personally.”
Murray is gay and a long-time proponent of expanding marriage to same-sex couples.
“This is not the session for social reforms,” Hewitt said. “The last thing we need to do is be down here in turmoil over social issues.”
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, countered that she believes lawmakers will have time to work on the issue and that the public is on board.
“This is the right time to move forward with marriage equality,” she said.
Murray disputed Hewitt’s contention that he would be distracted this session.
“We’re more than one-issue members,” he said. “I’m a little surprised he’s questioning my ability.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire renewed a broader discussion on gay marriage Wednesday as she publicly announced her support and acknowledged that she’s been grappling with the issue for years.
Speaking after the panel, Gregoire disputed the notion that lawmakers wouldn’t have time to address same-sex marriage during the upcoming 60-day legislative session that begins Monday.
“To those who say we don’t have the time, what will history say when we say, `Sorry, we had a budget to pass, so we continued to discriminate.’ That answer does not work,” she said. “This is our test. This is what leadership is about. Now is our time.”
Lawmakers need to close a roughly $1 billion budget shortfall, and in December Gregoire proposed spending cuts that include a shortened school year, the elimination of social services for thousands of low-income residents and the early release of some prisoners.
She also proposed a half-cent sales tax proposal that would raise nearly $500 million a year and offset some cuts. It would expire after three years.
Republicans continued their call for “reform before revenue,” and House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said that his caucus was considering offering an alternative option, such as the idea of allowing slot machines in card rooms to generate additional revenue.
“I think it would be interesting to put on the ballot next to a tax proposal and see what the people think,” he said.
Brown said it was an expansion of gambling that wouldn’t raise enough money to deal with the state’s budget woes. “I don’t see that as a solution to our budget solution,” she said.
DeBolt countered that the revenue raised from slot machines- which he estimated at $433 million- could be dedicated to reducing class sizes and “move toward funding education.”
The focus on education was enhanced Thursday by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education.
Susan Enfield, superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, said that putting education on the buyback list at the ballot, as the governor has suggested, “is a risky strategy.”
“If the revenue doesn’t come through, then the cuts will directly hurt our kids,” she said.
Brown said that lawmakers realize whatever budget they pass this session will be one “that we have to live with” if the public rejects a tax package at the ballot.
“So we’re going to be very careful,” she said.