House Democrats were moving toward passage of a $31.4 billion, no-new-taxes budget for state government Friday evening that would cut money for public schools and health care for the poor and the elderly.
The budget also would omit cost-of-living raises for public employees, delay decisions on closure of a prison, and cut more than 7,000 jobs in state government, universities and public schools. It was to head today for a possible hearing and vote in the Senate, one day before lawmakers adjourn their 105-day session in Olympia.
“The first thing people will do when they look at this budget is see the cuts we are taking. Many of these cuts are heart-wrenching. … For many of them, we have no choice,” House Ways and Means chairwoman Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, said in a speech before the vote that divided Democrats and received scorn from Republicans. “Unfortunately, no one was spared the pain. As we made these cuts, we tried to make them as fairly as we could.”
The majority Democrats said the budget makes the best of a bad situation that includes a projeced $9 billion shortfall triggered by a national economic meltdown that knocked down expected state revenues.
Republicans, in the minority in the Senate and the House, were furious that Democrats did not produce details of the two-chamber agreement until Friday morning, then hurried into a vote the same evening — just 10 hours after releasing their plan.
“I think it looks exactly as I would have feared: empty promises,” Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Thurston County, said. “It sets us up for a significant deficit when we come back in 2011 of over $10 billion. … It’s a credit card budget. They just raised their credit card limit and promised we’ll pay it off sometime in the future. We’re just not sure when.”
The budget relies on $3 billion in federal stimulus aid, $4 billion in cuts and a number of one-time moves to raid a rainy-day savings account, delay pension payments and shift money from construction accounts. Democrats rejected a series of amendments to the budget, also known as House Bill 1244; the amendments were aimed at adding funding for adult day health services, teachers, tax-poor school districts and foster children.
Interest groups kept pressing to the end for amendments to the budget, which is on a fast track for a hearing and floor vote today in the Senate — ahead of Sunday’s scheduled adjournment after 105 days in session.
Gary Weeks of the Washington Health Care Association said he was trying to get an amendment to blunt a 4 percent cut to nursing home payments under Medicaid. He said it adds financial pressure on some homes, especially in rural areas with fluctuating client loads. But Rep. Dawn Morrell, a Puyallup Democrat who had a hand in crafting some health care cuts, said federal stimulus aid let lawmakers avoid deeper cuts once proposed at 14 percent.
Meta Hogan, a resident caseworker at the Tumwater Gardens facility for patients brought back from Western State Hospital, and other members of Service Employees International Union 1199 Northwest still were holding out hope for a tax referendum that would raise $1.1 billion for health care — including mental health.
Hogan said the cuts could reduce funding for her employer, Behavioral Health Resources in Olympia, by 15 percent. She has concerns that some patients lacking care would be forced back into a mental hospital.
But House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said support was weak for House Bill 2377, which proposes a 0.3-cent sales tax increase over three years.
“We don’t have the votes. I don’t know where we get them now,” Kessler said.
The budget would rely on about $130 million in new revenue, including $102 million from a change in the sales tax exemption given to contractors that buy materials for use in projects that are sold and taxed.
It also would raise tuition by up to 14 percent yearly at four-year colleges for two years, and 7 percent at two-year schools.
Advocates for health care for the elderly and the vulnerable say the cuts are unwise, exposing vulnerable people in group homes to risks of dying. The Eldercare Alliance has contended that the state could spend $13 million from reserves to preserve an adult day health program while bringing in additional $19 million in federal matching dollars to help 1,000 disabled and elderly people.
The Democrats are keeping $822 million in reserve in case state revenues slide further over the next two years.
Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams of Olympia called the cuts unconscionable and tried, but failed, to pass an amendment to put money back into the adult day health programs. He had intended for several weeks to vote against the measure.
Supporters of the Washington Education Association also tried to introduce amendments putting more money into teaching. The WEA has complained that the budget would cut more than $1 billion from public schools and higher education. But Senate budget writers say those cuts are about 2.6 percent of the average allotment to school districts.
“We need to be honest about how these cuts are going to hurt students,” WEA president Mary Lindquist said in a statement. “Our students need the best education NOW. Our children can’t wait. Slashing more than a billion dollars from education undercuts their chance to get the education they need to earn a good living and secure their future.”
Isthmus bill dies
Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, says her effort to limit building heights on the downtown Olympia isthmus is dead – at least for this session.
Her third attempt to override the Olympia City Council’s approval of rezoning the land between Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake was ruled out of order in the House today. She had tried to create a moratorium for high-rise development on the isthmus as an amendment to House Bill 1379, which dealt with shorelines and local moratoriums.
“I didn’t give up,” Fraser said. She said her latest amendment was ruled beyond the scope and object of the underlying bill, the second time that has happened.
HB 1379 now will be put up for a vote in the Senate and sent to the House for final passage.
Fraser said her own bill, Senate Bill 5800, remains alive and will go back to Senate Rules in January 2010, where it can again be brought to the floor of the Senate and moved to the House.
Brad Shannon, The Olympian