By Rachel La Corte and Mike Baker Associated Press
OLYMPIA The Senate on Wednesday unveiled a budget proposal that focuses on a series of spending cuts and fund transfers as lawmakers work toward balancing a projected budget deficit of more than $1.2 billion and complying with a court-ordered requirement to spend more on the state’s basic education system.
The budget proposal doesn’t seek to close tax exemptions or extend or make permanent temporary tax increases, as proposed in the budget put forth by Gov. Jay Inslee last week. The Senate proposal does extend a fee on hospital beds, phasing it out over a six-year period.
“We live within our means,” Republican Sen. Andy Hill, the chamber’s top budget writer, said in a meeting with reporters earlier in the day. “We essentially prioritized the budget toward education.”
The budget writers said they identified more than $1 billion in savings, including $65 million in government efficiencies that state agencies will have to implement, $127 million in savings by moving thousands of low-income government workers into federally subsidized health care and millions more saved by delaying the opening of a prison unit.
Perhaps the most contentious cut will come in a program that provides cash aid to blind, disabled or older people who are typically waiting for approval of federal benefits. It would save the state $80 million. Hill said lawmakers assume that nonprofits will help the people who would typically get state benefits.
Hargrove said it remains a question mark whether the people will be able to get the same quality of services from private organizations.
“This was a hard one for us to swallow,” Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove said. “We’re not sure how this is going to work exactly.”
Fellow Democratic Sen. Sharon Nelson said there are elements in the budget that lawmakers will probably reconsider and amend in the coming weeks as the public gives feedback on the plans.
The budget proposal also repeals the voter-approved cost-of-living raises for teachers, redirecting the assumed $320 million to basic education. It also redirects money from other accounts, like the construction budget.
Compared to the current budget, the spending plan for the coming two years adds $1.5 billion more to K-12 education, including $1 billion directly toward satisfying last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to properly fund education. The overall amount proposed Wednesday includes more than $240 million on a learning assistance program targeted to high-poverty schools and $41 million to phase in expansion of full-day kindergarten.
The Senate also moves forward with Medicaid expansion, with the assumption that the move will save the state nearly $300 million.
In higher education, the Senate proposes to require a 3 percent reduction in tuition for in-state students. They say this will help manage the long-term financial concerns in the state’s prepaid tuition program.
Inslee’s budget plan would allow further tuition increases at the University of Washington and Washington State University — as much as 5 percent per year. Tuition at other state universities would go up as much as 3 percent a year, while tuition at community and technical colleges would remain steady for the next two years.
Republicans control the Senate with the help of two Democrats, known as the Majority Coalition Caucus. Hill said that he, Hargrove, Nelson and Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner met for weeks during the budget-writing process.
“When you’re sitting in a room with two Democrats and two Republicans, what we went through was a very thorough and meticulous and thoughtful process,” Hill said. “We looked at where we could capture savings, where we could control spending.”
But Hargrove stopped short of calling the proposal a bipartisan budget. He noted that while Democrats were involved in discussions, and some of their ideas were accepted, ultimately they’re not the ones in charge.
“I consider the process a bipartisan process, the most transparent bipartisan process that’s ever happened,” he said. As for the final budget: “You’ll know if it’s bipartisan if you see the votes on the floor.”
The Democratic-controlled House is expected to release its budget proposal next week.
Lawmakers are nearing the end of a 105-day legislative session, which is set to conclude April 28.
Follow Rachel La Corte at http://www.twitter.com/RachelAPOly or http://www.facebook.com/news.rachel. Mike Baker can be reached on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/HiPpEV.