Lawmakers reach deal to cut $480 million, but avoid controversial proposals

OLYMPIA — They came for this?

State lawmakers reached the halfway point of their special session Monday with an agreement to shave off a quarter of a $2 billion budget problem without making a serious nick in any program or major change in any policy.

The school year isn’t shortened, inmates aren’t released early and subsidized health care for the poor is preserved in a deal which fills $480 million of the hole.

And a proposal to ask voters to raise the sales tax won’t be taken up until at least the regular session gets under way next month.

The House could vote on the deal as early as Tuesday and lawmakers could adjourn by week’s end. They will then return Jan. 9 for the 2012 regular session.

“If we had difficulty negotiating something, it fell off the table,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “These are the least controversial things we could do.”

Republicans didn’t hide their disappointment with what they viewed as an underwhelming achievement in the session that began Nov. 28.

“We’ve been here nearly three weeks, so it’s time that we did something,” said Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “This is not enough as far as I’m concerned but it is a step forward.”

Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said he pushed for erasing a greater portion of the $2 billion budget problem.

“I’m frustrated that this is only as far we’re going to go,” he said. “I don’t want to go home and do nothing.”

Lawmakers began the session with Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire’s supplemental budget proposal in their hands.

Her blueprint for rebalancing the budget diagrammed nearly $1.7 billion in cuts in the budget, which runs through June 30, 2013. It also freed up another $340 million by pushing an apportionment payment to public schools into the next biennium.

She rolled out several controversial money-saving ideas such as shortening the school year by four days, ending levy equalization payments to dozens of school districts — including several in Snohomish County — and releasing convicted criminals up to five months early.

She proposed eliminating the Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized health insurance for low-income families and slashing funds for dozens of human service and health care programs. And she offered legislation to raise revenue, including a measure asking voters next March to approve a temporary half-cent increase in the sales tax.

Though those ideas won’t be dealt with now, Gregoire patted lawmakers on the back Monday for getting something done.

“This effort proves a good start as they will need to work tirelessly to ensure a full budget is passed early next year,” she said in a statement. “The longer they wait — the deeper the cuts will have to be.”

House and Senate budget committees conducted hours of public hearings on her proposed budget. Hunter said it became clear last week many proposals are complex and needed more time for debate.

“We can’t do the normal thing we do, having big stare downs over one particular item that’s really important,” he said. “We just don’t have time.”

And he rejected any assertion that decisions made in the agreement were easy. Of the $480 million in savings, almost half — $226 million — comes from reduced spending throughout state government, according to details released by Democratic budget writers.

One of the single biggest pieces is $49 million saved by delaying payments to school districts for bus replacement by 10 months. One of the smallest is $30,000 for printing of publications tied to the

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