‘Heavy lifting’ looms in state budget talks

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, April 13, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — Now, the budget negotiations can begin in earnest.

On Tuesday, the state Senate unveiled a bipartisan approach for erasing a projected $5.1 billion budget deficit that cuts more dollars from education, health care and human service programs than the House.

It also trims less

from corrections and though senators want larger tuition hikes imposed than do representatives.

One notable difference between the budgets of the two chambers is the Senate does not lock in revenue from a proposal to privatize the state liquor distribution system; the House counts on it nett

ing millions of dollars for social services.

Another difference: Majority Democrats wrote the House budget while the Senate’s product is a collaborative work.

“This is a very historical moment,” said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the budget committee, said he did not agree with everything in the final document but it does represent a bipartisan effort.

“This is a good budget for Washingtonians,” he said.

A public hearing on it is set for today and the Senate could vote on it as early as Friday.

Meanwhile, budget writers in both chambers are working to resolve differences and reach an agreement by the scheduled end of session April 24 to avoid going into overtime.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said the two political parties are working together in the Senate though it’s too soon to sing, “Kumbaya.”

“The heavy lifting has yet to be done. All the bills necessary to implement the budget will be tough,” he said. “Kumbaya is when the gavel comes down.”

The Senate plan spends $32.3 billion between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2013 while leaving $738 million in reserves.

To plug the anticipated shortfall, the proposal combines $4.8 billion in spending reductions and $455 million in transfers into the general fund from the capital budget and other accounts.

It does a number of similar things as the House.

It cuts funding for both voter-approved school initiatives to reduce class sizes and raise teacher pay. It also axes funds for state parks and counts on sales of a $10 day pass or $30 annual pass to offset some of the loss.

The Senate sustains the Basic Health Plan and Disability Lifeline program though at smaller levels than the House. Enrollment is frozen and noncitizens are barred from Basic Health while cash grants are eliminated and some medical coverage reduced for those on Disability Lifeline.

Education is an area where the Senate approach veers off the course taken by the House and Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal.

For example, senators book $251 million in savings through a 3 percent pay cut for teachers and public school employees. But lawmakers cannot reduce teacher pay. Murray said school districts will be encouraged to seek furlough days or make reductions elsewhere.

The Senate also hopes to save $95 million by not paying schools for students who are absent without a valid excuse.

Colleges might feel a little less pain overall from the Senate proposal compared to the House. That’s because the Senate figures on larger tuition increases to generate revenue: 16 percent annually for the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University, compared to 13 percent in the House.

For community colleges, it would be 12 percent, a half percent higher in the Senate than proposed by the House.

Both chambers are looking to let prisoners out early to cut costs. Under the Senate plan, about $6.4 million is saved by letting out those convicted of non-violent offenses 60 days early; the House aims to release them up to 120 days early and save $26 million.

Opposition surfaced to provisions in the Senate plan restricting enrollment in the state-subsidized health care program for children.

“We know from past experience that such changes don’t successfully reduce spending,” said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children’s Alliance, a statewide coalition of children’s advocacy groups.

And a consortium of progressive groups issued a statement urging lawmakers to balance spending cuts with eliminating tax breaks to raise revenue.

“As with the House budget released last week, these cuts are unsustainable,” read the statement from Our Economic Future. “This budget only balances on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens and at the expense of our future and our quality of life.”

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

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