Lawmakers have gotten used to a parade of complaints in hearings on budget cuts, but the latest one Tuesday saw a surprising number of thank-you's mixed in.
That’s because it came hours after House Democrats released a budget proposal that makes $217 million in cuts through June but would preserve – at least for the next few months – several programs targeted by Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Disability Lifeline, a program prized by House Speaker Frank Chopp that gives cash and medical aid to the disabled and out-of-work, goes untouched in the plan. Nor did House Democrats follow Gregoire’s proposals to reduce payments to property-poor school districts that take in less money from levies, or to end state health insurance for non-citizen and undocumented children.
“There are still devastating cuts in this proposal, but in many cases we managed to stretch the safety net without breaking it,” said House budget vice-chairwoman Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma.
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House Democrats even held out hope of saving the Basic Health Plan that insures 66,000 low-income people – although that optimism rests on a shaky foundation, since Democrats would cut all state funding for the program starting March 1 and don’t have a proposal for finding the money elsewhere.
HOW THEY DID IT
Programs across state government would take smaller hits to compensate.
But the biggest single source of extra money lawmakers found may be the greater-than-expected revenue coming in from taxes on oil and other pollutants. It’s a fund lawmakers have raided before, and House Democrats want to sweep $17 million from it, even though voters who imposed the taxes dedicated that money to cleaning up hazardous waste sites.
Rep. Ross Hunter, the House budget chairman, said it’s unused money and no cleanup projects scheduled for the budget period would be canceled.
But state port officials, who use the money to clean up polluted shipyards and industrial sites, said the money should be kept in the toxics fund to increase the number of projects that move forward next year, creating more jobs.
“Even if there’s a short-term surplus right now, (future projects) are coming down the pike,” said Sean Eagan, lobbyist for the Port of Tacoma.
The port, for example, hopes to use $2 million in toxics money next year to continue cleanup of a former Kaiser Aluminum smelter site on the Tacoma Tideflats. The port bought the property and has spent more than $5 million on cleanup already, with plans to turn it into a shipping terminal.
It took many of those kinds of cuts and transfers, but House Democrats’ proposal would cover most of the remaining shortfall in the current two-year budget.
If it passed, it would still leave about a $260 million problem, which could be solved through Gregoire’s proposal to use a budgeting gimmick to delay payments to school districts, or by some other means. And that’s before lawmakers deal with the $4.6 billion shortfall through 2013.
A key House Republican prefers the Democratic governor’s budget proposal to House Democrats’.
Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County credited Gregoire for explaining how she would fully balance the budget in the current fiscal year, and for eliminating programs to prepare for the next two-year budget, including the Basic Health Plan, which Alexander has long called for ending.
“We can’t just continue to kick the hard decisions down the road,” said Alexander, ranking Republican on the budget committee.
BASIC HEALTH PLAN
House Democrats’ plan would end state funding for the Basic Health Plan three years before a federal lifeline comes for the otherwise uninsured people who depend on its subsidized insurance, when the federal health care overhaul fully kicks in in 2014.
What happens in the meantime is unclear. Businesses, and maybe voters, would be asked to help.
House Democrats are still trying to figure it out.
“Parts of private industry here are interested in participating in the changes that occur with federal health care reform in 2014, and we’re trying to come up with a strategy that bridges some contributions in the short run, and potentially a referendum. We don’t know exactly where we’re going with that,” Hunter told reporters.
Budget writers are working with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to consider their options, Hunter said.
Asking voters to save the program by raising some kind of new revenue for the state is a possibility, Hunter said, but Democrats aren’t yet giving details.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics