Senate budget cuts teacher pay, raises tuition

April 12, 2011 

A $32.1 billion state budget proposal outlined by Senate Democratic and Republican negotiators Tuesday evening includes reforms that some lawmakers in each party have sought for years.

Sacred cows are among the targets of an estimated $4.8 billion in cuts. They include a 3 percent pay cut for public school teachers, early release of state prison inmates and closure of two state facilities for the developmentally disabled.

Overall, the two-year plan would spend about $330 million less than what’s called for in a budget that majority Democrats passed Saturday on a partisan vote in the House. Both would spend less than the state expects to take in over the next two years.

“This is a fairly historic moment. We have a bipartisan budget,” said Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, who leads the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee. “I think a lot of people thought it wouldn’t happen.”

Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Richfield, the ranking Republican on the budget committee, said it includes policy changes his party has sought.

“We felt it was our responsibility to help lead on this matter, not to simply sit on the sidelines,” he said.

The Senate plan is set for a public hearing at 2:30 p.m. today and could be voted on by week’s end. It avoids gimmicks such as selling revenue bonds using tobacco or liquor profits. It also does not count on the $300 million that the House assumed it could earn in quick cash by privatizing a state-owned liquor distribution warehouse.

The House and Senate still need to work out differences, and Murray expressed skepticism they can finish before their 105-day regular session ends April 24.

Potentially controversial pieces include:

• The 3 percent pay cut for public school teachers and many college staff members – mirroring a 3 percent reduction through furloughs that most state employees face after July 1. The move would save $251 million, and Murray said it would be up to local school districts and teacher unions to decide how to make the cuts stick.

• Additional furloughs for highly paid state workers ranging from two full days off without pay a year for those earning $50,000-$75,000 annually to more than eight days off for those earning more than $125,000.

• Ending a property-tax-deferral program for low-income residents.

• Cutting higher education by nearly $643 million but allowing higher annual tuition increases – 16 percent for the University of Washington, Washington State and Western Washington; 14 percent for Central and Evergreen; 11 percent for Eastern; and 12 percent for community colleges – than the House did. That would leave a net reduction of about $266 million, less than the House or governor proposed.

• Calling for the release of prison inmates 60 days early to reduce average daily prison populations by 252 statewide. Violent or sexual offenders would be ineligible. The House also has an early-release plan.

• Allowing health savings accounts for state employees while consolidating health plan purchasing for K-12 school system employees, following a state auditor’s recommendation.

• Eliminating a cash grant for some Disability Lifeline participants, converting it to a housing voucher. The House has a similar plan. It also would cap the number who can receive medical coverage under the program, which helps people temporarily unable to work or awaiting federal Social Security aid.

• Further reducing Basic Health Plan enrollment by 5,000 slots each year, to 39,000 the first year and 34,000 the second.

• Closing residential facilities for the developmentally disabled, such as Rainier School in Buckley and Frances Haddon Morgan Center in Bremerton, and plowing most of the savings into programs that would keep people with disabilities in their communities rather than in institutions.

The House and Gov. Chris Gregoire called for closing Yakima Valley School, not Rainier.

With nearly 400 residents, Rainier is the largest of the state’s five residential rehabilitation centers. Zarelli said it makes more sense to close a larger facility and said Rainier is understaffed.

Tom Dean, who said his son Patrick, 49, is happy at Rainier, wants all RHCs to stay open. He doubts the projections of $8.8 million in savings and said closings risk traumatizing residents.

“Trauma could bring earlier death to those people,” he said.

Budget writers said it remains to be seen whether other lawmakers will agree to the facility closures.

Murray said a former budget writer once told him, “Anything to do with RHCs is the third rail of this budget, and if I touch it, I die.”

Overall, the budget would make nearly $1 billion in spending reductions for medical aid to low-income residents.

It would make patients pay more for health care – ending subsidies to children of families earning more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and seeking co-pays for families at 150 percent to 200 percent of the poverty line.

It would expand requirements for review of certain surgeries and treatments and limit coverage of immigrants on the children’s health program.

It also would cut $70 million from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

But it would spare many programs Gregoire or the House proposed to cut or provide them with new fund sources. Among those:

• It would expand early-learning options by 480 slots a year for preschool children.

• It would let nursing homes avoid continuing cuts if a bill creating a special provider fee is passed. That fee would be used to capture more Medicaid money to funnel back into the homes.

• It would fund state history museums in Tacoma and Spokane, but they must cut hours and may close one day a week.

It also would reduce funds for state parks and other state-owned lands. But money collected from visitors who buy a new $30 annual Discover Pass is supposed to make up for much of the cuts. The House and governor proposed similar access fees for those who bring vehicles on state lands.

House Ways and Means chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said in a statement: “At first glance, it looks like this proposal lines up with ours in some areas. But there are some other items that concern me, particularly around K-12 funding.” Hunter’s approach on Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1087 passed the House on a 53-43 vote Saturday, with no Republicans in favor and one Democrat opposed.

Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association and its nearly 70,000 teacher members, criticized the plan in an email.

“The Senate budget proposal sacrifices our kids’ futures by slashing at least $2 billion in K-12 school funding. It cuts teacher pay, eliminates funding for more than 1,000 teachers and crams more students into already-overcrowded classrooms. We have the third-most-crowded classrooms in the country, and this budget will make things worse for our kids,” Wood wrote. “Let’s be clear: This budget will hurt kids.”

Besides the 3 percent pay cut, the budget would eliminate cost-of-living pay increases for K-12 personnel that are called for under Initiative 732, which is current law, and cuts come on top of a previous elimination of pay for teacher-preparation days.

In unveiling a budget that lacks general tax increases, senators failed to heed the requests of thousands of protesters who swarmed the Capitol last week, demanding closure of so-called tax loopholes. Monica Peabody, one of the protesters who stayed overnight at the Capitol and advocates for people who receive state welfare aid, stood up at the news conference to ask why legislators are not closing exemptions that benefit the wealthy and industries.

“There’s some really indefensible tax exemptions,” Peabody said. She cited those that affect private planes, elective plastic surgery, large banks and private club dues.

Murray said voters in all but five legislative districts rejected higher taxes last fall, and Zarelli said the state needs to pass a budget that lives within available state revenues – which he said are $4 billion more than in the two-year cycle that ends June 30.

Of course, the ongoing budget cycle was helped by several billion dollars of federal economic stimulus aid, which is why the new revenue is not enough to sustain many programs at previous levels.

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