Politics & Government

Majority Democrats' budget details revealed

Majority Democrats released a few details of their emerging budget compromise Thursday, saying it has “cuts with a conscience” to health care and schools but would keep state parks open and spare key programs such General Assistance-Unemployable.

It also would preserve funding to keep classes small in the first five years of public school, let schools lift limits on local property tax levies to cover an additional 4 percent of costs, and use federal economic stimulus dollars to limit public education cuts to $794 million, or an average of 2.6 percent statewide.

The budget also would trigger as many as 7,000 or 8,000 job cuts in state government, colleges and public schools, with about 2,000 in state government agencies.

Overall, it would bridge a projected $9 billion budget gap with $3 billion in federal aid, $4 billion in cuts to programs and services, $780 million in cash taken from capital construction accounts, and other one-time moves. It would allow $31.4 billion in general fund spending and keep an $830 million reserve.

The budget would cut college enrollment by 9,028 slots and suspend cost-of-living pay raises for state government and public school employees. It also would inflate tuition rates by up to 14 percent a year at four-year schools and 7 percent at community colleges, while adding $52 million to financial aid and sustaining the level of State Need Grants.

The budget could be voted on in the full House today, then in the Senate on Saturday or Sunday. The Senate’s Ways & Means chairwoman, Sen. Margarita Prentice, said it’s time to vote.

“I just feel we’ve got a plan and we’ve got to carry it through,” Prentice told reporters after a brief one-page summary of budget highlights was released late in the afternoon. “I’d like to have a whole lot more money, but you know what? We don’t have (it), and we’re going to have to live with what we have, and I think we’ve done a good job to protect what we have in this state.”

Republicans have complained that the budget still would involve spending more than the state is taking in and would not be sustainable because of the way federal and capital budget money is used. But they had not been briefed on the budget and wanted time to examine and digest details when the full budget documents are available at 9 a.m. today.

“I don’t think it will change my vote,” said Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, the top budget voice for the House GOP.

The release of the budget came just as support for a 0.3-cent sales tax referendum for health care was failing to attract support from more than 25 House Democrats. Along with a Senate income tax on high earners, the tax referendum appeared to be dying.

“I don’t have the votes,” said Democratic Rep. Eric Pettigrew, the prime sponsor of House Bill 2377’s three-year sales-tax increase. He said he hopes to make “one last push” after the budget details are fully released and his colleagues see the effects the budget has on human services.

Pettigrew said that as of Thursday afternoon, he had 25 solid votes and there wasn’t a sign of life for the plan.

“I’m hoping I saw the chest move,” he joked, adding, “As you know, anything can happen … at the last moment.”

The Service Employees International Union 775 Northwest blasted Democrats for not mustering more votes, and spokesman Adam Glickman said he hopes Democrats change their minds after seeing the budget cuts.

“It would be shameful if a supermajority of Democrats could not muster the political will to vote for a small temporary tax increase to avoid massive cuts to health care,” Glickman said.

The proposed budget would include cuts that long have been expected – including elimination of Basic Health Plan insurance for 40,000 of the approximately 100,000 low-income working people on it. Other actions would include a 4 percent cut in the state’s payment rate to nursing homes and elimination of funding for adult day health services for people living in group homes or nursing facilities.

Adult day health funding still will be available for those living at home.

“It’s still a horrible cut,” Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser of Kent said. “I’m depressed.”

The budget also would spare state co-payments for participants in the Medicare Part D program for prescription drugs. That had been slated for cuts. The budget also would spare funds for adult vision programs but would cut dental coverage.

However, it would defer some key decisions in corrections, where the Senate had sought to close the Green Hill youth prison in Chehalis and the McNeil Island prison, while the House sought to close a youth camp in Naselle.

Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina and No. 2 budget writer in the Senate, said the budget is full of “tough cuts, but again, I will say it was … cuts with a conscience.”

The compromise also includes money to preserve a General Assistance-Unemployable program that gives $339 monthly stipends and health care to adults unable to work, many of them with mental illnesses. That had been a sticking point between the House and Senate.

Some Republican lawmakers had called for eliminating GAU and the Basic Health Plan, as well as for an increase in the state employee share of health insurance costs.

But Democrats ultimately balked at doing any of those things. Keiser, who is her caucus’ lead on health care, said it should become clear in three to four months how many nursing facilities and adult day health agencies, as well as other services, have shut down.