Politics & Government

U.S. Senate vote averts state need for special session

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is claiming victory this morning after a 61-38 preliminary vote on giving $26 billion in federal aid to the states.

H.R. 1586 includes some $528 million for Washington that should be enough to avert a short-term budget crisis which could have required across-the-board cuts or a special session of the Legislature to balance the state's books.

Murray offered amendments to the bill to ensure it was paid for using unspent funds already allocated in other areas of the federal budget. ( Her chief campaign rival, Republican Dino Rossi, has objected to the aid if it added to the U.S. debt or deficit.) Republican U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe crossed over to join Democrats in averting a GOP filibuster. A final Senate vote could come later today or tomorrow before lawmakers adjourn at week's end for their August break.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had been mulling whether to call a special session or order across-the-board budget cuts of up to 4 percent to cover the potential loss of $480 million in Medicaid assistance that Washington state lawmakers assumed in their 2010 supplemental budget.

H.R. 1586 makes up just about $320 million of that gap but would leave the state budget close to break-even with that level of medical assistance. An additional $208 million in aid to public schools would save an estimated 3,000 public school jobs, according to Murray's staff, and further easing the budget crunch.

After it moves from the Senate, the bill needs to go to the U.S. House for approval, perhaps in September, before President Obama signs it. But Murray offered this victory statement in an email:

“I am proud that I was able to put together a bipartisan coalition that put families and communities above partisan politics and delivered on the support our states need,” said Senator Patty Murray. “This amendment will allow Washington state to avoid layoffs, service cuts, or tax increases—and it will make sure our children don’t walk through the schoolhouse doors this September to larger class sizes and fewer subjects.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire had been working with other governors around the country to push for passage of the funding, and she put out this statement today that suggests the short-term crisis is over:

“I applaud the Senate for today’s vote extending FMAP support to the states. Moving forward on the FMAP extension means Washington, and many other states, will not be forced to make drastic cuts that would have harmed both our citizens and our economic recovery. The Senate heard that now is not the time to lay off thousands or to eliminate medical services for those who need it the most. Such actions would have been devastating to Washington state by slowing our recovery and potentially pushing us toward a double dip recession. It is important to note that in light of the economy states have already cut their budgets, in Washington state we’ve cut $5.1 billion from the state budget. “While a final vote in the Senate is required, as well as a House vote, I anticipate that they will both act swiftly.  “Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were champions of this effort and I thank them for their tireless efforts to protect our people and our economy. “I especially want to thank my colleagues in governor’s offices from across the country who led a bi-partisan effort to assure that this necessary support came to fruition.”

Gregoire and Washington state still face a predicted $3 billion shortfall for the budget cycle in 2011-13, which lawmakers must address starting in January. Gregoire has held budget-transformation talks with the public around the state in recent weeks in a run-up to the two-year budget she'll propose in December.