Budget would cut K-12; spare Basic Health

Staff writerFebruary 16, 2011 

Negotiators at the Capitol said today that they’ve reached agreement on a supplemental budget that would spare the Basic Health Plan from closure but would cut some state workers’ pay by 3 percent in April and also would cut money for schools.

The deal includes a retroactive, $25 million cut in class-size-improvement money allocated last year to public school districts for use in the lower primary grades.

The agreement on Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1286 would solve about $367 million of what once was a more than $1.1 billion budget deficit through June. New cuts total $242 million, and fund transfers make up $125 million more – on top of nearly $600 million in moves made during a one-day special legislative session in December.

The fine print still was emerging, but the deal requires both the Senate and House Democrats to trim favored programs – Basic Health in the Senate, Disability Lifeline in the House, and children’s health in both chambers.

Members of the legislative caucuses were set to learn details Thursday, but a vote on the Senate floor could come as soon as Friday.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, described the cuts as “extremely painful” in a joint news release issued with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield.

“They aren’t necessarily the decisions we’d embrace if we had a wider set of options before us, but that’s a luxury we don’t have,” Murray said. “Our obligation is to bring the current budget into balance, and we intend to meet our obligation.”

Zarelli wanted more action sooner but said in the news release, “This compromise continues the movement the Senate had initiated toward reforming three large, visible state-only entitlements, which is important because reforms need to have a prominent role in the development of the next biennial budget.”

The negotiated deal would:

• Reduce Basic Health enrollments by lowering eligibility for the subsidized health insurance to those eligible for a Medicaid waiver – in effect, those earning 133 percent or less of the federal poverty line. That would reduce enrollment from about 52,000 today to about 40,000.

• Cut the cash grant for Disability Lifeline to about $174 per month – down from about $258 after budget cuts in 2010 (it had been more than $330). House Republicans sought to eliminate the grants, but House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and colleagues balked.

• Limit children’s health insurance program enrollment to children in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. Less-poor families could continue to enroll if they paid their own way.

• Shift about $25 million in student aid grants into the general fund, letting universities replace the cut with tuition funds.

House Republicans are unlikely to support the deal, according to Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, the House GOP negotiator.

Hardest to accept, Alexander said, are retroactive cuts of $25 million to public schools’ class-size funding for the early primary grades. The House and Senate negotiators moved to the Senate’s position – cutting $25 million from last year’s appropriation, which some school districts have already written into their budgets this year. But that is less severe than the House’s earlier proposal of more than $42 million.

The agreement would leave about $200 million of the deficit unsolved. But Chopp and others have said it will be bridged by a one-day delay of per-pupil funding for public schools – until July 1. That delay would be part of a two-year budget to be approved in April.

Announced in draft form, the full agreement was to be presented as a “conference report” of the House and Senate negotiators soon. The House Democrats were getting a briefing from their budget chairman, Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina, late in the day.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

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