OLYMPIA, Wash. — Top state lawmakers split Thursday 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, Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt said the gay marriage debate would particularly 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 she believes the public is on board with it.
"This is the right time to move forward with marriage equality," she said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire renewed a broader discussion on gay marriage Wednesday as she publicly announced her support of the idea and acknowledging 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 shortening the 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 of the state's cuts. It would expire after three years.
On Thursday, 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 she thought 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 with a ruling by the state Supreme Court, in which it said that the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education.
Speaking from another panel at Thursday's meeting, 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 that whatever budget they pass this session, it 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.