State colleges face $500 million in cuts

OLYMPIA — Washington’s higher education system will face severe cuts of almost $500 million under the Senate’s proposed budget, the Senate’s top Democrat said Thursday.

Depending on how colleges and universities handle those cuts, “it guarantees enrollment reductions that are fairly significant,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said at a news conference, just days before the Senate’s budget is formally unveiled.

Brown’s comments provided some of the most detailed glimpses yet of how the Legislature’s long-­awaited budgets may look.

In her no-new-taxes budget proposal in December, Gov. Chris Gregoire suggested about $342 million in cuts to higher education.

That amounted to net state spending cuts of about 13 percent across the board for four-year schools, and about 6 percent for community and technical colleges, after factoring in higher tuition. But the state budget deficit has worsened considerably since Gregoire’s budget plan was unveiled.

The Senate will reveal its budget proposal Monday, followed by the House on Tuesday. Lawmakers might then develop a package of tax increases to send to voters later this year, letting the public “buy back” some programs that are cut in the state budgets.

On Thursday, Brown said the Senate’s overall proposed cuts to state programs are well over $3 billion.

Brown said the Senate has not yet decided whether to give universities the ability to raise resident undergraduate tuition above the current 7 percent cap.

“However, we believe as people see these major reductions in higher education and what it means for enrollments … then we will probably revisit the tuition question before the end of session,” she said.

Gregoire has proposed a surcharge on top of tuition to help universities deal with budget cuts.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said the House has not made a final decision on how much it might cut higher education spending. But House officials are open to raising tuition rates above the 7 percent cap to offset some cuts, he said.

The surcharge idea floated recently by Gregoire, however, is not getting a warm reception in the House. “There’s not been too much popular support for that idea,” Chopp said.

While some other programs will be eliminated entirely, Brown said, the Senate’s budget will keep some programs the governor proposed cutting altogether, like General Assistance-Unemployable, which gives cash grants to disabled people who cannot work.

The Senate would also keep the Adult Day Health program, which Gregoire suggested eliminating. That program serves about 1,900 elderly people and adults with developmental disabilities.

But even those programs are reduced significantly in the Senate budget, Brown said.

In the House, Chopp said budget writers are likely to save money by changing the way the General Assistance medical program is administered.

Gregoire proposed eliminating a large part of the program to save about $251 million, but Chopp said money can be saved “without harming anybody” by running the program’s health benefit through a managed care system.

More savings could be found by filling General Assistance drug prescriptions through community clinics, which get a better rate because of bulk purchasing, Chopp said.

“That alone would save a good amount of money, and yet still provide the necessary treatment,” he said.

State worker health benefits have been another target for savings, and the Senate’s budget would save about $257 million by not paying for inflation costs in employee health benefits, Brown said.

That would mean a reduced package of benefits for state workers, but Brown said the pain from the budget cuts should be spread across the state.

“My members believe that if we’re cutting health care programs like the Basic Health Plan and potentially other types of health care for vulnerable people, that our own health care should become more expensive,” she said.

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