Democratic Gov. Gary Locke unveiled a $19.2 billion budget for the 1997-99 biennium Tuesday that gives state employees a raise and makes education a top priority.
Republican legislative leaders gave the budget a warm reception, saying it reflects their own priorities.
That’s a marked departure from previous years when former Gov. Mike Lowry’s budgets were declared dead on arrival by the GOP.
Locke’s budget would increase spending 8.2 percent over the current level. That includes $225 million for new programs, with three of every four of those dollars spent on education.
Locke also would spend $419 million on a 5 percent state employee raise over two years.
The governor distanced himself from the liberal shadow of his Democratic predecessor. Locke’s budget is $300 million lower than Lowry’s plan for the coming biennium.
Locke also sliced about $200 million out of existing programs, with more than half of it coming from the Department of Social and Health Services.
“Many of these are very worthy programs,” Locke said. “But we have a spending cap and education has to be our No. 1 priority.
“We had to make tough choices.”
The cuts include more than $20 million in inflation allowances that state agencies will now have to absorb and reduce the number of people eligible to receive public assistance.
The budget lives within the spending limit set by Initiative 601 and maintains a reserve of more than $300 million.
The governor’s budget assumes adoption of $217 million in property tax cuts at the ballot this fall and a reduction of the business and occupation tax to pre-1993 levels as of July 1, 1998.
Even the proposed state employee pay raise got a favorable response from Republicans.
“I don’t think there is any doubt there will be a pay raise of some sort,” said Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
State employees have not had a general cost-of-living increase in four years. But about half the state work force has received automatic pay increases that reward longevity.
Republican legislative leaders said they were glad Locke’s budget appears to embrace their goals, from property tax cuts to paying for improvements in education and juvenile justice reform.
“We are very encouraged that we see our priorities were included in the governor’s budget,” said House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee.
A yawning deficit in the state Basic Health Plan would be closed by Locke, and 20,000 new slots added to help provide health insurance for low-wage workers entering the job market under welfare reform.
Total enrollment in the Basic Health Plan would then stand at 150,000.
A big increase in child care subsidies for the poor, costing $100 million, also is proposed. That’s crucial to welfare reform, the governor said, because it will help people on public assistance enter the work force.
A range of new education programs would be funded, from paying high school kids to be reading tutors in the public schools to building a community college in Bothell.
Community colleges and four-year universities also would gain 6,310 new enrollment slots.
The budget would spend heavily on school construction to eliminate the backlog of public school construction projects within 10 years.
A savings incentive plan for state agencies also is proposed. The plan allows agencies to keep half the money saved through agency efficiencies proposed in-house by administrators.
The rest of the savings would be spent on school construction.
The plan is expected to save $85.5 million in the coming biennium by ending agencies’ incentive to spend all their budget by the end of the year.
Locke also proposed spending $17 million on juvenile justice reform for tougher sentences and more treatment for troubled kids.
The increased sentences would be for kids who commit serious sex offenses or crimes using firearms.
Nearly $40 million would be spent to conserve, clean up and protect state waterways in an attempt to avoid the listing of more fish for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The governor also proposed a transportation budget that includes no gasoline tax increase.
But that doesn’t mean the gas tax fight is over. Locke said he supports a gas tax increase and is working with legislative leaders, including Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, to enact one.
So far, support has been scant for a legislative plan to increase the tax 5 cents per gallon the first year of the coming biennium and 2 cents per gallon the second year.
The proposal would give local governments the option of increasing taxes an additional 2 cents a gallon if they want to.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: New spending priorities
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? The Senate is expected to propose its version of the budget March 24, and the House will unveil its version soon after that.