Mr. Fitzgibbon Goes To Olympia, Looks To Brighter Days For The State

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by Mark Neuman

For most newly elected public officials, the first day on the job usually involves a touch of ceremony and tradition, with the real work beginning the very next day.

But for 34th District State Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, at 24 the youngest current member of the Washington State Legislature, Day One was anything but traditional.

At about noon this past Saturday (Dec. 11), while powerful winds beat down upon western Washington, as heavy snow piled in the passes, and a steady rain lobbied Olympia, Joe Fitzgibbon entered the chamber of the House of Representatives and cast his first vote before an hour had passed.

The occasion was a one-day special session called by Governor Chris Gregoire to, effectively, cut several hundred millions of dollars from the current state budget.

Fitzgibbon is certainly no stranger to Olympia, having served as a close aide to then Representative Sharon Nelson, now State Senator from the 34th District.

A Burien resident, Fitzgibbon was elected to Nelson’s former seat last month and sworn in Dec. 2nd.

“But it is still awe inspiring as your first time as an actual legislator to enter that chamber and cast a vote that will shape the future of our state,” Fitzgibbon said.

“You take very seriously that role when you see the institution at work like that. It was very much a business day where we had to go down and get some work done. We took three votes on Saturday and we did it in record, fast time. I was gratified to see that.”

The Budget Crisis
Voters last month rejected a state income tax on high earners, and passed Initiative 1053, which narrows the corridor of opportunity for the legislature to raise taxes.

In that light, Fitzgibbon did not rule out the specter of an “all cuts” budget, and he commented on it’s possibility.

“I think we would cut from probably almost all areas that are not constitutionally protected,” he said. “So that means higher education, probably community colleges as well as four-year colleges, and pretty much every Medicaid service that isn’t required by the federal government. All these will probably be on the chopping block (along with) the (state’s) basic health plan.

“Also, a lot of our corrections programs that are aimed at reducing repeat offenders, such as drug treatment programs and mental health courts, will be on the chopping block.

“Certainly K-12 education, though protected, is still likely to take some very severe cuts if we go ahead with an all cuts budget.”

On the possibility that new or additional taxation might occur, Fitzgibbon said “It’s still anyone’s guess whether that is possible. If that happened it would probably come as a result of the legislature sending a package of revenue increases (to the voters) on an upcoming ballot. I think those would likely concern ending some tax exemptions that we don’t think are performing well.

“I think sending a package to the voters would be more responsible than just cutting everything to the bone.”

Governor’s Proposal On Boards and Commissions
Just a couple of hours before our interview with Fitzgibbon (December 14), Governor Gregoire proposed cutting a number of state boards and commissions.

“I have not seen (the governor’s) specific proposal,” Fitzgibbon said. “Optically, cutting state boards and commissions looks like a good cut, but generally it saves no money, or next to no money. Those boards and commissions don’t cost very much. Many of them pay their own way in different ways.

“We probably will cut some more boards and commissions (but) I don’t think that’s going to make the smallest dent in our budget problem. It’s always worth looking at and figuring out whether what we’re doing is worth doing.”

Committee Assignments
Committee assignments have not been finalized, but Fitzgibbon has asked to sit on, among others, the Higher Education, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Transportation committees.

“My number one committee request is certainly Transportation,” he said.

“I’d really like to help stabilize our transit agencies so they can protect the service that we have, and have a pathway to new services in the future.

“We have Rapid Ride transit lines that are supposed to be coming to Burien and I’d like to keep us on track to get those, even in bad economic times.”

Asked what, perhaps, the legislature might have done differently in the recent past to avert the current crisis, Fitzgibbon said:

“There are a lot of things. I don’t think we could have foreseen the magnitude of this economic crisis. Certainly we could have put more into the rainy day fund than was constitutionally required. With the magnitude that the revenues have dropped, I don’t think there’s any way that we could have totally alleviated the shortfalls.

“Revenues were growing very, very fast in the mid-2000’s and I think that the Legislature probably could have done a better job of knowing that couldn’t go on forever and to put more of that in the bank for a time like this,” he said.

The disparity between tax revenues of the mid-2000’s and now “show how unstable our tax system is. Five or six years ago it would have been great if the legislature and the governor had started the conversation about how to construct a more fair tax system and a more stable tax system,” he said.

Public Education
“I would really like to see us stabilize our public schools,” Fitzgibbon said. “As of right now the best we can do for public schools in our state is to keep things from getting cut even worse than they are already likely to.

“But in the long run I’d really like to see the state step up and provide a good quality public education for students in our K-12 system, but also before they enter kindergarten, as well for students in technical and four-year colleges.

“That’s the paramount duty of our state and we haven’t been doing a very good job of it,” Fitzgibbon said.

“I’d love to see us provide a quality education for everybody who wants it.”

The Future
Fitzgibbon lightly rang the bell of optimism.

“We are slowly but surely seeing things improve,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get back to where we started, but we have already seen the state’s revenue collections picking up slightly, which is encouraging.

“Apparently it’s a pretty good holiday shopping season, from what we hear from retailers.

“I think slowly but surely we’ll get back on the right track. But it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen without a lot of hard work.”

(The regular legislative session is set to begin January 10, 2011. The 34th District covers Burien, White Center, West Seattle, Maury Island and Vashon Island.)

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