Staff and wire reports
OLYMPIA — Gov. Gary Locke, facing a divided Legislature and pinched revenues, proposed a $22.7 billion "hard choices" budget Tuesday that cuts services to the poor while envisioning billions for roads and schools.
Locke’s budget would lift the state’s spending lid to pay for voter-approved raises for teachers, but doesn’t spell out how he would pay for a mammoth $9.6 billion transportation program.
Locke insisted his budget hews to the voters’ desire for spending limits, but said it makes sense to exempt voter-approved mandates from the old spending cap.
"In one sense, this budget was written in voting booths from Spokane to Seattle, where voters made the clear choice to spend hundreds of millions of dollars — new dollars — for education," he told reporters.
Voters in November passed Initiative 732, which mandates annual cost-of-living raises for teachers, and I-728, which allows local school districts to keep more of their state property taxes at home. The measures will cost the treasury nearly $800 million in the next two years, Locke said.
He proposes to exempt the pay raises — $325 million — from the spending limits voters put in place in 1993 with Initiative 601.
The governor’s two-year spending plan got a mixed reaction. Locke faces a 49-49 tie in the House and a scant one-seat Democratic majority in the Senate.
Advocates for the poor and for senior citizens were aghast at the cuts he proposed. Republicans were upset with his heavy use of the state reserves and his plan to lift the state’s spending limit.
"There is gonna be one helluva battle, I can tell you," said Rep. Tom Huff, R-Gig Harbor, retiring co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Borrowing a line from President-elect Bush, he said, "There’s a lot of fuzzy math" and shaky assumptions in Locke’s budget.
Democrats were more generous, calling it a good starting point for budget talks in the Legislature. The new session convenes Jan. 8.
Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, said spiraling health care costs and the education spending will make it tough to pass a palatable budget this winter.
"There are some good things (in Locke’s proposal) for kids, some good things for education, but overall it is a pretty ugly budget, and I think it’s clear that what we end up passing will be pretty ugly," he said.
Locke’s proposed budget contains $236 million in program cuts, 83 percent of which come from the Department of Social and Health Services, the Department of Health and the Department of Corrections.
"You will find some pain. But the people of Washington expect fiscal discipline," he said.
To balance the budget, he said the state must concentrate on core services. Locke made it clear his top priorities are education and transportation.
Cuts are proposed for adult dental care, mental hospitals, medical care for the indigent, chore services, nursing home reimbursement and other social services.
Locke also offers another unpopular place to save money: driver’s education subsidies for local schools. Savings: $5.6 million.
Locke restored proposed cuts in the state park system and even boosted its budget by 14 percent.
His transportation plan would include $5.9 billion for new state projects and $3.7 billion for local funding. The state share, which would double the current spending level, includes money for high-priority projects in Snohomish County, such as I-5, I-405 and Highway 9.
A tax package for next fall’s ballot will be produced in cooperation with the Legislature, he said.
"I call on the Legislature to join with me in finding a funding plan that will make sense to the voters," he said, adding, "It’s no secret what the alternatives are."
Asked if that includes a gasoline tax increase, he said: "Everything is on the table. I’m open to anything and everything."
The governor provides smaller pay raises for college professors and state employees than those mandated for public school teachers. Teachers will get a raise of 3.5 percent in the first year of the budget cycle and 2.6 percent the next year. Other public employees will get 2.2 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.
All public employees will be required to pick up a greater share of their health care costs, Locke said.
Locke’s social services budget does include $84 million for improved services to abused children, vulnerable and elderly adults, and foster children. More money is provided for supervision of sex offenders in civil commitment programs.
The governor renewed his proposal for a property tax break for seniors and the disabled.
"Given the fact that the governor’s got to make the cuts he has to, he’s probably made the cuts as fair as they can be," said Bill Vogler, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties. "That doesn’t mean we’re happy with the cuts."