State Sen. Joseph Zarelli told the Associated Press that Washington’s budget gap may soon reach $7 billion.

Zarelli is the ranking Republican member on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. His forecast is higher than the $5.7 billion estimate that Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire used last month when she proposed her $33.5 billion 2009-2011 budget. The gap is the difference between the state’s projected income and the cost of providing current services.

Gregoire has proposed balancing the budget with $3 billion of spending cuts — including suspension of state employee, teacher, and care worker salary increases — $1 billion of as-yet-unsecured federal aid, and the use of the state’s rainy-day fund. She opposes new taxes.

Several public employee unions have already sued over Gregoire’s refusal to give them scheduled salary increases. While they say the pay hikes are guaranteed by collective bargaining agreements, the governor says the agreements include circuit breakers that allow her to set aside pay increases during economic crises.

The Legislature returns to session next week.

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