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House Speaker Chopp chats with Badger Club in Kennewick

 | Published on 12/13/2008

KENNEWICK -- House Speaker Frank Chopp said Washington's projected deficit may not be as bad as it looks.

Chopp, a Seattle Democrat, was in the Tri-Cities on Friday for a forum with the Columbia Basin Badger Club, a local group that grills politicians and newsmakers on political issues without taking sides.

Several club members from the audience of about 75 asked Chopp about the state budget, which officials estimated in November would face a $5.1 billion shortfall in the upcoming biennium.

But Chopp said the doom-and-gloom prophecies include estimates for $1 billion in spending on new programs, which seems unlikely given the current revenue picture.

"In fact, we won't do that now," he said.

Some programs -- like the idea of offering all-day kindergarten -- will have to wait until the economy turns around, he said.

Chopp identified several ways he expects the Legislature will look at slashing spending so it doesn't have to borrow money to balance the budget.

Among those were cutting programs added to the budget in recent years that aren't working, like a job search program through the Employment Security Department that has only a 5 percent success rate.

"We're going to wipe that out," Chopp said.

He also suggested that about $1 billion the Legislature agreed to put into the state pension system when it had a surplus a year ago could be put on hold.

Areas that Chopp said wouldn't be cut because of constitutional requirements are basic education and funding for people with disabilities, but he added everything else is on the table.

Chopp also was grilled about his thoughts on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning -- he's open to getting rid of requiring the test for graduation -- and nuclear energy. On the latter, he said Tri-Citians should invite more Western Washington lawmakers to the area so they'll have a better understanding of the topic.

"I could use some education myself," Chopp said.

Retiring Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland, interjected that she thinks the real problem with discussions about nuclear energy is that government has allowed the wrong people to frame the debate. She suggested the United States could take a cue from the French.

"The French are so much smarter than we are it's disgusting," Hankins said. "They don't allow the 'antis' to control the issue. We allow the 'antis' to control the issue."

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