State Senate budget includes cuts, avoids taxes

The Associated PressApril 4, 2013 

The Senate on Wednesday unveiled a budget proposal that avoids new taxes by focusing on a series of spending cuts and fund transfers as lawmakers work toward balancing a budget deficit of more than $1.2 billion while adding more money to the state’s basic education system.

The budget proposal doesn’t seek to close tax exemptions or extend or make permanent temporary tax increases, as proposed in the budget put forth by Gov. Jay Inslee last week. The Senate proposal does extend a fee on hospital beds, phasing it out over a six-year period.

“We live within our means,” Republican Sen. Andy Hill, the chamber’s top budget writer, said in a meeting with reporters earlier in the day. “We essentially prioritized the budget toward education.”

The budget writers said they identified more than $1 billion in savings, including $65 million in government efficiencies that state agencies will have to implement, $127 million in savings by moving thousands of low-income government workers into federally subsidized health care and millions more saved by delaying the opening of a prison unit.

The budget could come up for a vote on the Senate floor as early as Friday.

Perhaps the most contentious cuts will come in social services. One would eliminate a program that provides cash aid to blind, disabled or older people who are typically waiting for approval of federal benefits. It would save the state $40 million. Hill said lawmakers assume that nonprofits will help the people who would typically get state benefits.

Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove said it remains a question mark whether the people will be able to get the same quality of services from private organizations.

“This was a hard one for us to swallow,” Hargrove said. “We’re not sure how this is going to work exactly.”

Lawmakers would also cut $180 million from a state welfare program, including child care for the working poor — a cut that Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter called “cruel.” Inslee called the spending plan “deeply flawed.”

“The Senate proposal to address our basic education obligations is funded in large part through cuts to vital services for children, families and vulnerable adults — exactly what I have said we must not do,” Inslee said.

Democratic Sen. Sharon Nelson said there are elements in the budget that lawmakers will probably reconsider and amend in the coming weeks as the public gives feedback on the plans.

Both of the Democratic budget leaders said revenue options will be examined to help prevent some of the cuts. Hill was noncommittal on that specific issue but said his caucus was flexible.

The House Republican budget lead, Rep. Gary Alexander, lauded the Senate proposal.

“It validates what we’ve been saying for months — that we can produce a balanced budget that funds education first, protects the most vulnerable and provides for public safety — and we can do it without relying on tax increases,” he said in a written statement.

The Senate budget proposal repeals the voter-approved cost-of-living raises for teachers, redirecting the assumed $320 million to basic education. It also redirects money from other accounts, like the construction budget.

Compared to the current budget, the spending plan for the coming two years adds $1.5 billion more to K-12 education, including $1 billion directly toward satisfying last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to properly fund education. The overall amount proposed Wednesday includes more than $240 million on a learning assistance program targeted to high-poverty schools and $41 million to phase in expansion of full-day kindergarten.

The Senate also moves forward with Medicaid expansion, with the assumption that the move will save the state nearly $300 million.

In higher education, the Senate proposes to require a 3 percent reduction in tuition for in-state students. They say this will help manage the long-term financial concerns in the state’s prepaid tuition program.

Inslee’s budget plan would allow further tuition increases at the University of Washington and Washington State University — as much as 5 percent per year. Tuition at other state universities would go up as much as 3 percent a year, while tuition at community and technical colleges would remain steady for the next two years.

Republicans control the Senate with the help of two Democrats, known as the Majority Coalition Caucus. Hill said that he, Hargrove, Nelson and Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner met for weeks during the budget-writing process.

“When you’re sitting in a room with two Democrats and two Republicans, what we went through was a very thorough and meticulous and thoughtful process,” Hill said. “We looked at where we could capture savings, where we could control spending.”

Hargrove praised the process but stopped short of calling the proposal a bipartisan budget. He noted that while Democrats were involved in discussions, and some of their ideas were accepted, ultimately they’re not the ones in charge.

“I consider the process a bipartisan process, the most transparent bipartisan process that’s ever happened,” he said. As for the final budget: “You’ll know if it’s bipartisan if you see the votes on the floor.”

Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray said that as it stands now, he’s not likely to vote in support of the budget.

“We can’t solve our K-12 problems without new revenue,” he said.

He also expressed concern that cuts to programs for the poor was a strategy for negotiations with the Democratic-controlled House.

“I have a real problem with using the poor as leverage to make budget wins,” he said.

The House is expected to release its budget proposal next week.

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