Proposed state budget avoids tax increases, school cuts, but still looking for votes

OLYMPIA — Educators, prosecutors and providers of health and human services cheered Senate Democrats on Tuesday for their plan to rebalance the state budget without new cuts to schools, colleges and major social service programs.

Now all Senate leaders have to do is round up 25 of the 49 senators to approve it.

“Not yet,” Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said when asked Tuesday if he’s got enough votes to pass what he cobbled together as the chamber’s chief budget writer.

Unlike last year’s budget, there’s no Republican buy-in for this plan, which fills a $500 million shortfall in the budget that runs through mid-2013 and establishes a reserve of $369 million. There are no new taxes proposed.

If no GOP members cross over, passage will require support of moderate Democrats, chiefly members of the so-called Roadkill Caucus who’ve shown a propensity to align with Republicans on fiscal matters.

Moderates, who understand the pivotal position they occupy, want some reforms. So even though several lawmakers said Tuesday they like what’s in the Senate proposal, they’re unwilling to back it until policy changes are advanced.

“We need to have them,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, one of the caucus founders. “If they are passed, I could probably vote for this.”

Meanwhile, hours after rollout of the Senate Democrats’ spending plan, the House began debating its version of a budget. Crafted by majority Democrats, it cuts spending deeper and creates a slightly larger reserve, around $450 million, than does the Senate. A vote could come as early as Wednesday.

With both plans in play, the Senate, House and Governor’s Office will step up negotiations to reach a compromise before the scheduled end of session March 8.

Release of the Senate plan seemed to overshadow the House action partly because it did not trim funding for elementary and secondary schools and colleges.

“This is the first budget since 2008 that doesn’t cut education,” said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union. “We thought the House budget was good. We think the Senate budget is better.”

It also restores a 15 percent cut in the size of grants received by those in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, program. Lawmakers made the cut last year.

Overall, the plan put forth Tuesday by Murray and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, does call for $356 million in spending reductions.

And it directs the state to keep $71 million in liquor taxes and profits rather than send those dollars to cities and counties. Also counted on is $160 million in “agency reversions” to the general fund, which is money agencies didn’t spend by the end of the fiscal year. The sum is four times larger than what the House assumed in its budget.

The single biggest savings comes from delaying a $330 million payment to public school districts until July 2013, the start of the next budget cycle. The House also included this accounting sleight-of-hand in its plan. Murray and Brown defended the move Tuesday as a means of averting slashing school funding or raising taxes.

This maneuver is one reason why Republicans shunned the Senate Democrats’ proposal.

Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, who teamed with Murray on the bipartisan budget in 2011, said he thought they’d agreed this year there would be no “gimmicks” and spending wouldn’t exceed available dollars.

Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, said Democrats “have presented an unreasonable spending plan that kicks the can down the road by putting off payments and leaves a miniscule amount in reserves.”

Finally, like the House, the Senate plan doesn’t rely on any new taxes. And Murray sounded pretty certain there’s no need to ask voters to increase the sales tax as suggested by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

As the proposal circulates, the conversations with moderate Democrats in the Senate will intensify; they’ve proved to be a difficult group of votes to corral. Their willingness to defy caucus leadership last year helped bring about changes in workers compensation, unemployment insurance and a bipartisan spending plan.

This year, they’re pressing for changes such as teacher evaluation, merging of school employee health insurance plans, a requirement for balanced state budgets, a broadening of renewable energy laws, restructuring of state government and revamping how convicted criminals are treated when they violate their probation.

Many of these reforms have passed the Senate and await voting in the House. They want them sent to the governor.

Hobbs said it’s a principled position and they won’t knuckle under in order to avoid going beyond March 8.

“We are willing to stay here through another special session if necessary to get some of these reforms passed,” Hobbs said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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