Lightly used services save state millions

State budget writers have received a $200 million boost to their spending plan, thanks to an unexpected drop in caseloads for state-paid programs such as medical care of the needy.

That bit of good news goes on top of what some have described as a $1.9 billion surplus for the 2007-09 budget cycle. And more good news - reportedly in the neighborhood of $40 million to $50 million - could come Thursday when the quarterly revenue forecast is delivered.

"We have more money. … It's very welcome," House Appropriations chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, said Monday.

Sommers now plans to release her budget proposals next Tuesday, a day later than previously announced. And Senate Ways and Means chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, releases her budget proposals one week later. Both have been waiting for the revenue forecast, which now might be anticlimactic after the caseload report they received last week.

Sommers declared right away that her preference is to set aside about $50 million on top of the $605 million Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in December. Prentice offered roughly the same assessment, saying that all of the money would easily be spent if she went along with the requests that have poured in for programs.

Both expect the influx of disposable dollars to invite more requests.

But the ranking House Republican, Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, said he wants to set it all aside to carry forward into future years - inching up the state's reserve to close to $1 billion if he can jawbone the majority Democrats into accepting.

"Why not put the whole $200 million in the end-fund balance? That seems like a pretty logical thing to do," Alexander said. He emphasized that most of the $200 million reduction is in costs for medical coverage of needy parents and children, which is a different story than if it had resulted from a surge in economic activity.

"It's not new revenue. It's not a situation where you can expect the economy to grow" and keep producing extra revenue again, Alexander said.

Governor's plans

Gregoire did not tip her hand on what she wants done with the money, although she did tell reporters during her weekly media meeting that budget writers would get $200 million in good news resulting from the case­loads.

That's roughly the amount Gregoire has proposed in new spending for a major push on math and science teaching, and a little less than she's proposed to put into a new, hard-to-tap Rainy Day Fund.

Gregoire's budget director, Victor Moore, declined to say how the governor might want to spend it - or use it in her more than $30 billion spending proposal for 2007-09.

"It creates new conversations between the governor and the Legislature," Moore said delicately.

Moore said the savings will be "a little over $200 million" - even after accounting for more than $30 million in additional pay raises that the state will have to give to teachers.

Much of the savings is from lower than predicted use of the Medicaid program and lower prescription drug utilization, Moore said. Some is the result of residents moving onto the federal Medicare Part D program, he said.

The extra salary cost for teachers is the result of Initiative 732, adopted by voters in 2000. That initiative guaranteed yearly cost-of-living increases for K-12 school employees and tied them to the Seattle Consumer Price Index.

Teachers had expected to receive pay raises of 3.4 percent this year and 2.6 percent next year under inflation-connected formulas set by Initiative 732. The raises now will be 3.7 percent this year and 2.8 percent the following year, said Anne Martens, spokeswoman for the governor's Office of Financial Management.

By contrast, state employees negotiated contracts with Gregoire that will raise pay in most cases by 3.2 percent this year and 2.0 percent next year.