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Originally published January 13, 2010 at 4:42 PM | Page modified January 13, 2010 at 6:46 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Washington state's budget needs a haircut — a buzz cut or just a trim?

Democrats in Olympia plan to cut programs, raise taxes and await federal help to close the state's $2.6 billion budget deficit. If they raise taxes, they will lose seats in November, but probably not enough to give up their majorities.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

At one time or another, almost every lawmaker in Olympia has received unsolicited advice from a hairdresser. The hair artiste might be gesticulating wildly, scissors in hand, explaining how onerous it would be to extend the state sales tax to consumer services, especially beauty parlors.

For the next 60 days, state lawmakers grappling with a daunting $2.6 billion budget deficit will experience many similar moments. Lawmakers will hear endlessly about the pros and cons of every possible tax or tax loophole. Absolutely no increase in property or general business taxes or, for that matter, haircuts.

Maybe a tax on gum, candy and bottled water. A tax on snuff or cigarillos and all tobacco products. A more equitable tax on private airplanes and a tax on out-of-state credit card companies doing business in Washington.

Gloomy news from Olympia means lawmakers will cut spending, await partial federal bailout and raise certain taxes to pay for programs, such as health care for the working poor, aid to low-income college students and all-day kindergarten.

Democrats in Olympia are in a nasty lose-lose predicament. Many taxpayers want the above goodies but not badly enough to pay higher taxes for them. There is a legitimate feeling that a tax increase of any kind harms the economic recovery.

Democrats who have a sizable majority in the House, 61-37, and Senate, 31-18, will have to offer most of the votes on taxes. And voters will promptly punish them at next November's election.

This may be the most predictable scenario in politics. It also will happen at the national level, and the national political and economic climate could impact local voting. President Obama was elected in part on a promise to enact health-care reform. If he and the Democrats in Congress are successful, voters are likely to strike back at the midterm elections.

State lawmakers make their choices this session mindful that legislators in the past who raised taxes felt voters' wrath at the next election. It happened in the early 1980s, when the Republican-led Legislature cut programs and slapped taxes on food and other items in a dour economy. They were shown the door on Election Day.

In 1993, Democrats cut programs and approved a tax increase — and experienced a monumental trouncing in the next election, also the year of the Republican revolution.

Republican lawmakers say the state should slash its way out of its budget gap with cuts and some changes in policy, such as contracting out services. But that is the least likely outcome because too many programs mean too much to many different people.

So Democrats will suck it up and take the vote — along with considerable blows at voting time next fall.

Say what you will about House Speaker Frank Chopp, who may nettle some people with his overbearing ways. But he is a master at counting votes and ensuring that Democratic lawmakers in vulnerable suburban districts are protected on tax votes.

Looming over the Legislature in a way that only he can loom is initiative fanatic Tim Eyman. He has not been connecting with voters of late. The public has tired of him and his strident, redundant shtick. Yet if he wants to give citizens money — by heading off tax increases in future years — they may well support an initiative reinstating a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote of lawmakers for a tax increase.

Many legislators figured the boom days would return and rescue them from the bleak choices they now face. Economists say don't count on it. It will take years for the state economy to truly rebound.

State government has to do what King County government is doing. Decide what services it can offer and which ones to let go.

Democrats recognize the bind. If they cut too many programs and harm too many vulnerable residents, they rile constituents. If they raise taxes, there will be new people in several seats next year.

The clearest prediction is Democrats will lose seats but not the majority.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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