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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

New Political Dynamics, Budget Challenges Face Washington's 2013 Legislature

OLYMPIA, Wash. – It’s like Downton Abbey. A new season of the legislature begins with plenty of intrigue and tensions between powerful personalities.

Washington lawmakers convene Monday for the start of the 2013 session. They face a $2 billion budget problem, an unusual political dynamic in the state senate and hot button issues like gun control.

There are familiar faces and new ones. Chief among them Governor-elect Jay Inslee.

“We’ve got fiscal challenges, we have some creative and different situations in the state senate, we have ideas that are contentious,” he says.

One of Inslee’s first jobs: write a balanced budget. He’ll need to fill a shortfall pegged today at $900M and come up with new money for public schools to respond to a Washington Supreme Court ruling. How much for schools?

“I have a number in my head, but I can’t tell ya I have the money in my pocket.”

Inslee says he’d like to hit his campaign goal of $1 billion more for schools in the next two year budget. He calls that “reasonable,” but says there’s no guarantee. As for taxes, Inslee continues to say he’s open to closing some tax exemptions.

But as he did on the campaign trail, the governor-elect maintains he intends to solve the budget conundrum without a general tax increase.

“I still believe that is the way forward.”

Some of his fellow Democrats disagree.

“We have a revenue system that is out of whack that will not pay for the services that the people of this state want, not Democrats, but the people of this state want,” says Senate Democratic leader Ed Murray of Seattle.

Murray floats the idea of a state capital gains tax. But the new Senate Majority, of 23 Republicans and two breakaway Democrats, has made it clear: taxes, revenue – whatever you want to call it – is pretty much a non-starter.

“I think we are spread way too thin in government," says Senator Rodney Tom, the Democrat who will lead the new majority coalition in the state Senate. "We’re trying to be all things to all people. We’re doing things in a mediocre manner.”

Tom suggests, for instance, ending the popular, but expensive pre-paid tuition program for higher education known as GET. Lawmakers and the governor have the next 105 days to hash out these tough issues and then find consensus, if not common ground.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."