OLYMPIA — In an effort to break a budget logjam, Senate Republicans and their three Democratic allies unveiled a new spending plan Thursday morning that would spend more on public schools and state colleges.
It also offers more money for child care for working families and has no new taxes. But it does skip a $140 million payment to state pension systems in exchange for other changes to pension plans that would save money in the long run.
Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, called it a “compromise approach” to the differences between the budget passed in a parliamentary takeover two weeks ago in the Senate and a significantly different plan passed by House Democrats on the last day of the regular session.
Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, said it was a better plan than the one he joined with Republicans to pass. “It's a budget that can bring the special session to a close.”
Senate Democratic leaders, who only saw the proposal at the same time Republicans released it at a morning news conference, said it has “some very good movement,” because it restores money for public schools and higher education that Republicans proposed cutting two weeks ago.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she was still concerned that the proposal cuts money for the Disability Lifeline, but “I feel great about the moves that were made on the spending side.”
The public release of a new budget proposal, signaled movement over talks which have essentially been at a stalemate for two weeks. But potential roadblocks quickly surfaced.
Democrats said they still have concerns about skipping the $140 million pension payment, because the cost of that grows over time. Republicans acknowledge the long-term cost of that is about $400 million over 25 years, but they estimate the savings from ending early retirements for new state employees would be $2 billion over that period, and that money could be used to shore up the pension funds.
The Legislature has skipped or delayed pension payments in six times since 2001, in budgets written by Democrats and Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire had asked legislative leaders to come up with a budget that doesn't skip the pension payment, which Republicans favor but Democrats oppose, and also doesn't delay a $330 million payment to schools by shifting it from the end of this biennium to the first day of the next. Democrats favor that approach but Republicans call it unsustainable budgeting.
The new budget proposal doesn't do that. It also calls for the state to spend $780,000 to set up 10 charter schools, while cutting $1.5 million Democrats proposed for “collaborative schools”. Charter schools, which can be set up by a public school and parents to try new methods and avoid some state requirements, would need new legislation to be passed along with the budget. Collaborative schools, a plan to pair the Education Departments of the state's colleges with troubled schools, has already passed.
Sen. Rodney Tom, another of the three Democrats who voted with Republicans on their Senate budget, is a strong supporter of charter schools. The budget would pay for 10 next year, in “persistently failing schools.” But Gregoire and other Democrats regard charter schools as taking money from the existing schools; the governor proposed the collaborative school program as a way to bring innovation into classrooms without setting up charter schools.