OLYMPIA — House Democrats on Monday released their blueprint for eliminating the state’s looming $5.1 billion shortfall and, as expected, students, disabled and the poor bore the brunt of their budget balancing moves.
But it also had a bit of the unexpected: support for letting a private firm run the state liquor warehouse in hopes of generating millions of dollars to prevent even deeper cuts in education, health care and human services.
Overall, the proposal for the two-year budget beginning in July preserves several signature initiatives of majority Democrats such as the Basic Health Plan, early childhood education, levy equalization and family planning services for low-income women.
At the same time it calls for raising college tuition, ending cash grants for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, cutting hours of in-home care for elderly and disabled adults and letting some inmates out early to get rid of all the red ink.
“The good news is it was not worse than we expected,” said Nick Federici, a veteran lobbyist for human service groups. “The bad is it’s still pretty bad.”
House Democrats’ plan spends $32.4 billion between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013, while setting aside $795 million in reserves.
To plug the anticipated shortfall, Democrats combine $4.4 billion in spending reductions with transfers into the general fund from the capital budget and other specialized funds and a projected $300 million infusion from privatizing operations at the state’s South Seattle liquor warehouse.
About $1.2 billion in savings comes from not paying for voter-passed initiatives 728 and 732 to provide smaller classes and higher pay for teachers.
Another $482 million is carved out of higher education. It is partially offset by tuition hikes of 11 percent at community and technical colleges, 13 percent at the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University and 11.5 percent at the other four-year universities.
Democrats are taking more than $1 billion from health care and human service programs overall while retaining a slimmed down version of the Basic Health Plan and revamped Disability Lifeline program serving those unable to work due to a disabling condition. Enrollees will lose cash grants in October but will receive aid in securing permanent housing which many need, under the plan.
“This continues to be an extremely challenging time for the state. I wish the budget had more good news but it doesn’t,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee led the budget writing process.
Monday’s release heats up debate on the most important piece of legislation lawmakers must act on before the session’s scheduled finish date, April 24.
“It doesn’t look like we’re substantially changing the size and scope of government,” said Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, who serves on the House budget committee.
“If we don’t begin to really look at how we’ve expanded programs through the years and how we try to do something for everybody, then in the end we won’t be able to do anything for anybody,” she said.
Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, applauded inclusion of $6 million to improve prison safety following the death of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl.
But he blasted other recommendations to save money by allowing early release of some inmates and laying off community correction officers.
“Public safety is taking a big whack in the head,” he said. “I am concerned for the people of this state. I can’t support putting offenders back on the streets. This is not the way.”
House Democrats don’t plan on large sums from closing any tax loopholes. They do count on $60 million for state parks through a new $30 “Discover Washington” pass. And they are taking a risk by penciling in $300 million from getting a private operator for the liquor warehouse.
The Legislature must still pass the bill and Gov. Chris Gregoire must sign it to allow the switch. Then there must be a contractor found who can pay the sum. Hunter said if it doesn’t work out he’ll look to shave the amount from the budget rather than take it from the reserves.
Groups most affected by the cuts are traveling to Olympia this week to implore lawmakers to raise revenue by eliminating tax breaks such as ones for banks, cosmetic surgery and owners of private airplanes.
Labor groups, college students and networks of community action groups will hold rallies today through Friday to ask lawmakers to “Put People First.”
“The cumulative impact of these cuts will be to push low-wage caregivers deeper into poverty and undermine the quality of care for the most vulnerable,” said SEIU Healthcare 775NW Vice-President Adam Glickman-Flora.
The budget bill could clear the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday and be in front of the House of Representatives as early as Friday. The Senate is expected to move its version of a spending plan next week then budget writers in the two chambers must iron out differences in the documents.
Failure to reach agreement would mean a special session.
“It’s going to be daunting to get done on time,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, told reporters last week.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org
To read the budget go to http://leap.leg.wa.gov/leap/archives/index_budgetsp.asp