Bipartisanship reigns in quick-paced session that helps plug budget deficit

Staff writersDecember 11, 2010 

Legislature eyes deficit

The Legislative Building. (Olympian File Photo)

BY STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian

  • HEARINGS ON 3 BILLS

    The House Ways and Means Committee is set to hold a hearing at 10 a.m. on three bills to be considered in today’s one-day session:

    House Bill 3223, which would allow the Department of Revenue to waive penalties for companies that owe back taxes and pay up promptly. The measure could raise $44 million over six months.

    HB 3224, which would suspend pass-through language on federal welfare money.

    The budget-cuts bill. For details on the still-unnumbered bill, see it online from leap.leg.wa.gov or tinyurl.com/28rho5o to access it directly.

    The Senate Ways and Means Committee has hearings at 11 a.m. on two bills:

    Senate Bill 6893, the child-support financing bill also being heard in the House.

    SB 6892, the tax-amnesty bill also being heard in the House.

Republicans and Democrats reached across the aisle in rare bipartisan fashion today to swiftly approve emergency budget cuts and money shifts that plug more than half of the state’s $1.1 billion budget hole through June.

Gov. Chris Gregoire is making another $110 million in across-the-board cuts, bringing the budget solution close to $700 million. Gregoire said she’ll offer a plan Friday to cover the remaining gap, and members of both parties said they hope their spirit of cooperating continues as they face another gap of about $5 billion next year.

“Let me say I am very proud of what the Legislature was able to do today and how they did it,” Gregoire, a Democrat said. Lawmakers of both parties “stood up to the challenge” and “they stayed true to every deal we made in this room” during last week’s negotiations in her office.

Three bills were passed by lopsided margins by 3:30 p.m. in a fast-paced day that began at 9 a.m. and included a budget hearing. Both chambers adjourned about 4.

The House approved the budget measure, House Bill 3225, on an 86-6 vote with only four Democrats and two Republicans opposed. It passed the Senate on a 30-9 vote with four Republicans and five Democrats opposed.

“I think more what the public wants from us today is action. Despite why we are at where we are at, we are where we are,” Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield said in a floor speech on House Bill 3225’s spending cuts. “And it is what it is. That’s the way we need to look at it. ... That means we have to make some tough decisions.’’

The swift action came just one month after voters sent a message that Gregoire and most lawmakers interpreted as a no-new-taxes mandate.

And that is what voters are getting in the budget package – including cuts that will reduce homecare workers’ hours for the vulnerable, reductions in money for community health clinics, and cuts in money for those on the Disability Lifeline and for welfare recipients. Public schools also are being cut including $39.4 million to reduce class sizes in lower grades and $51 million in across-the-board cuts for universities and community colleges.

And in a move decried by Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood, the budget closes the McNeil Island prison.

A coalition of advocates for health care and services for the poor put out statements after the vote saying that families are put at risk by it. Rebecca Kavoussi of the Community Health Network of Washington, which has clinic members such as Sea-Mar in Olympia, was quoted as saying: “Will people lose their ability to work? Yes. Will these cuts lead to new, higher costs? Yes. Will people die? Yes.”

But many lawmakers said the cuts are unavoidable given the state’s budget problem, which was driven in large part by the national financial downturn in 2008. About $6 billion in expected revenues for the budget period ending in June went away, and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Murray, put blame on Wall Street activities.

“I’m very pleased,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Thurston County, who helped negotiate the budget agreement. “I think we’re started showing the importance of bipartisanship in addressing very difficult issues like the budget. I hope we can continue doing that going forward.’’

“I see more bipartisan cooperation coming on development of the budget. There will still be disagreements on policy issues,” Springer said. But on the budget and a gap next year of $5 billion or more, he said, “They aren’t a lot of ways out of this without cooperation.’’

“While we may not feel good about all aspects of it, we can feel good about the process,” said Rep. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup.

But Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla and his budget leader, Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, said they don’t expect the good cheer to last when the harder questions come up for debate in January.

“Absolutely not. This is an aberration,” Hewitt said, crediting the quick agreement to the mutual recognition of an emergency and a real lack of time that brought majority Democrats to positions Republicans wanted to take previously.

In making the next round of cuts, Hewitt said: “We have differences of opinion in how we do it.”

Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, gave his final speech before retiring from his seat on the budget. He said he would have preferred a more wide-ranging effort at writing a full supplemental budget. He said he wanted to ensure that the budget effects of cuts could get more careful consideration.

He also said lawmakers already have cut $5.1 billion in spending over the past few years and need to continue discussions about how to capture more revenue as they face another huge revenue gap next year.

And Williams questioned how people cut off from getting health insurance benefits from the Basic Health Plan, Disability Lifeline or other programs would get them from philanthropic groups like churches and nonprofits.

Others said the amount of actual cuts in the agreement is too little. The $588 million budget bill includes about $208 million in shifts of funds Congress approved to maintain education-sector jobs, $54 million in other fund shifts that include $20 million from the toxics cleanup account, and $44 million in tax payments by businesses that are in arrears and agree to pay up without penalties by May 1.

The changes will lead to reductions in the cash grant to participants on the Disability Lifeline from $339 a month to $258, according to state budget director Marty Brown. And Gregoire said grants to families on the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or welfare program will see grants of about $542 a month shrink by about 15 percent.

Substitute Senate Bill 6893 also lets the state keep pass-through funds that are remitted by parents who pay child support. About $100 of the money that had passed to families with one child and $200 for families with more kids will be retained by the state, and some Democrats such as Sen. Lisa Brown broke ranks and voted against it.

Brown’s vote, along with that of Senate Floor Leader Tracey Eide of Federal Way, caused confusion with other Democrats who also voted no. It led to only 13 Democratic votes in favor of the bill, less than was agreed to, Gregoire said.

But Hewitt and Senate Republican colleagues did not ask for a revote.

And Brown later said the program, which she had helped enact and cost about $1.45 million, helps keep separated families working together. She said the parent paying child support knows the money goes directly to dependents and recipients know the money was paid.

In the end, no amendments were accepted for any of the bills. Robin Zukowski of Columbia Legal Services had testified earlier in the day that the child-support money should have been put into the state’s budget “box” for other welfare services.

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