House passes initial budget with nearly $350M in cuts

State: Lawmakers vote 55-43 along party lines, bill now goes to Senate

January 25, 2011 

House Republicans voted in lockstep Monday against nearly $350 million in proposed spending cuts and transfers of money that would eliminate more than half the remaining gap in the state budget through June.

The bill was passed by the House on a 55-43 vote and heads to the Senate for further consideration.

The nearly party-line vote came after the defeat of the minority GOP’s alternative plan and contrasted with the last time lawmakers took a whack at the shortfall, when Republicans and Democrats came to a bipartisan deal in December.

The real question is what this opening act portends for the main event, the two-year budget and its $4.6 billion shortfall. Will lawmakers return to their typical partisan divisions?

“We’ll figure out how to work together,” House budget chairman Ross Hunter predicted.

GOP floor leader Charles Ross of Naches wasn’t so optimistic.

“Today is the foundation day” that will set the tone for the session, Ross said, addressing the House’s presiding officer. “We’re here to be a part of the solution, Mr. Speaker. My fear is that we’re seeing those doors of opportunity for bipartisanship begin to close.”

The doors opened in December with a deal the Legislature’s partisan caucuses struck before convening for a one-day special session. A sign they could keep working together came this month at the start of the 105-day session when the Senate changed a rule that had made it hard for the minority party to change budgets on the Senate floor.

Besides, the two-year problem ahead will require deep cuts that some Democrats might reject, leaving legislative leaders looking for GOP help.

For the 2011 stopgap cuts, House Democrats maintained a united front of support with the sole exception of Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes, keeping the plan moving along and heading for the Senate.

Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said the budget process reverted to its more partisan roots as the proposal wound its way through the House, but he said Hunter has made it clear he wants to work with Republicans on the two-year budget.

Hunter said it was difficult to come up with an early package of cuts that could be unveiled on the ninth day of the legislative session and passed out of the House on the 15th day, Monday. “I had a week to rewrite the budget,” said Hunter, D-Medina.

Hunter said Republicans didn’t give him specific feedback on their ideas until after he had formally released them in a bill. GOP budget point man Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County did make three priorities clear, Hunter said: eliminate the Disability Lifeline and Basic Health Plan programs, and preserve levy-equalization for property-poor school districts.

“He got two out of three,” Hunter said. The cash and medical aid for the disabled survives in the plan, but state funding for the Basic Health Plan’s subsidized insurance is eliminated while the money to offset levy differences is not touched.

House Democrats would keep most Basic Health patients insured through April and are still holding out hope that money materializes to help the patients until 2014, when Congress’s health care overhaul kicks in with its more generous Medicaid coverage.

Their plan would make more than $220 million in cuts and achieve the rest of the savings through transfers, like the sweeping of money from a pollution-cleanup fund. It would leave more than $250 million left to cut in the current fiscal year.

Republicans complained that the shuffling of money would simply move the problem down the road. But their biggest problem was the plan to snatch back $42 million that had been given to school districts months ago to limit class sizes in grades K-4.

The Democratic bill eliminates those payments for the 2010-11 school year, which already is nearly half over. Dammeier said some school districts based last year’s hiring decisions on the assumption they would have that money, putting local officials in a bind.

“Where do we think the local school districts are going to make up that money? What’s going to happen to those teachers?” he asked.

But Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, said the choice was between paying for class-size enhancements and bottom-line services for vulnerable people. “They can mean the difference between life and death,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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