Politics & Government

State deficit adds $96 million

Washington's budget deficit has grown by about $96 million, driven mostly by higher-than-expected costs for public school teachers, state bookkeepers said Wednesday.

The change pushes the state’s budget deficit to about $2.7 billion. That’s the gap between expected tax revenue and expenses through June, when the state fiscal year ends.

Legislators have been expecting a jump in state costs. But the $96 million spike still makes the budget-balancing task tougher, especially in light of the $9 billion budget hole they patched last winter.

“We’re now taking all of the cuts out of a very small portion of our budget, which means that more services that people have come to rely on are in jeopardy,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

About $65 million of the cost increase was attributed to compensation for K-12 teachers. That was driven by cuts in the number of less-experienced teachers and fewer retirements among more senior staff, said Victor Moore, director of the state Office of Financial Management.

Costs also were higher in long-term medical care, corrections and other types of education spending. But lower-than-expected payouts for certain welfare and social service programs helped keep overall costs down, officials said.

Lawmakers are about halfway through their scheduled 60-day legislative session.

Majority Democrats haven’t yet unveiled their proposals for plugging the budget hole, but they have said they plan a mix of tax increases and spending cuts to find the solution.

“Every $100 million means we either cut another $100 million, or we raise another $100 million — or we do half and half,” Kessler said. House Republican budget chief Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said he was disappointed that the Legislature hasn’t moved quicker to contain costs in the face of staggering financial problems.

“The question is, how are we planning for this? Are we moving our $2.6 billion up closer to maybe $3 billion?” he asked.