April 27, 2009 in City

‘Brutal’ session comes to close

Cuts, fees dominate in tough budget year
Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – Shortly before 1 a.m. Monday, lawmakers wrapped up a grueling legislative session that saw two lawmakers hospitalized and left the state facing $4 billion in cuts to schools, adult day care centers, colleges, hospitals and health coverage for the working poor.

“It has been a brutal year, frankly,” said Rep. John Driscoll, D-Spokane.

And lawmakers may not be completely done. Several budget-related bills weren’t passed by the midnight deadline, leaving open the possibility that the governor may have to call a special session. When — or if — that will happen will likely be determined later this week. And that wasn’t the only 11th-hour drama. Pierce and Clark county lawmakers teamed up to defeat a controversial bill from Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, that would have rewritten some renewable-energy requirements for utilities. After a cascade of legislative “hostage-taking” led to a deadlock over other bills, lawmakers were on track to kill Marr’s bill late Sunday night.

“It was a fun round of cards tonight,” said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy. “Of course, the winners always feel that way.”

Although lawmakers approved hundreds of bills, the state’s budget woes dominated the session. In the end, lawmakers said they had no choice but to make deep cuts.

Some legislators wanted to ease the cuts with a $1.1 billion sales tax hike or a state income tax on the wealthy. Both ideas would have needed voters’ approval. For decades, under both parties, Olympia has responded to economic downturns with a mix of cuts and tax increases.

Not this time. Lawmakers couldn’t even find enough support under the Capitol dome to send either tax plan to the ballot. Polls showed lukewarm support from voters, and earlier this month, 5,000 anti-tax demonstrators swarmed the steps of the Capitol.

The House and Senate compromise budget, unveiled Friday and approved over the weekend, will mean 40,000 fewer people with state-subsidized health coverage, no cost-of-living increases for teachers or state workers, and deep cuts even to programs that top lawmakers had tried to shield, like adult day health. The latter was cut by 70 percent, although the state will still pay for some care.

“This is going to be big and bad for Spokane-area elders,” wrote Jim Lippold, executive director of Providence Adult Day Health. He estimated that 64 out of 97 frail, elderly patients will lose state funding for the health, exercise and socialization program. They may end up costing the state far more, he said, if they end up in nursing homes as a result.

“Many of these cuts are gut-wrenching,” said Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. “But given the size of our budget problem, all of them are necessary.”

“This was a no-win situation,” Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane, said of the budget choices lawmakers faced.

‘Nobody gets everything’

It was a hard session for Democrats and Republicans, although for very different reasons.

Democrats, who hold large majorities in both the House and Senate, ended up torpedoing some of the biggest priorities of environmental groups and organized labor.

Labor’s top priority – a bill to ban employers from calling mandatory anti-unionization meetings – crumbled after a few lawmakers got a state Labor Council strategy e-mail that vowed “not another dime” in campaign support unless the bill passed. Top lawmakers and the governor promptly killed the bill and called police. But the State Patrol and the local prosecutor couldn’t think of any law that had been broken.

The Service Employees International Union, which had largely bankrolled a citizens’ initiative last year that required more paid training for thousands of home health care workers, watched as millions of dollars worth of training requirements were delayed due to budget woes. And state workers, who started the session trying to hold on to modest 2 percent cost-of-living increases this year and next, saw those rejected almost immediately.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, watched angrily as landmark cap-and-trade legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gases was stripped of most of its substance.

Democrats “have alienated all their base,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. “Labor unions are mad at them, environmentalists are mad at them, and they’re mad at each other.”

Wood agreed that it’s been a tough year for labor.

“Nobody gets everything,” he said. “But business won more than anybody expected this year. And labor kind of didn’t.”

In the Republican caucus rooms, the mood wasn’t much better. Outnumbered 62-36 in the House and 31-18 in the Senate, Republicans complained bitterly all session about having little say in budget discussions.

Still, Republicans had the luxury of not having to lead. And they scored victories where they could, allying themselves with business groups to push cuts in unemployment taxes and to largely gut the cap-and-trade bill.

“We don’t need something that is so regulatory and so punitive,” Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said of the latter.

Republicans also argue that the budget process should have gone much deeper, scrutinizing everything more and shrinking government down to its core functions. They spent much of the session blasting Democrats for balancing the budget with billions of dollars in federal stimulus money and other one-time moves, such as using $770 million in construction money to pay for operating costs. As a result, Republicans say, the state’s likely to face another multibillion-dollar budget shortfall in two years.

“We robbed every fund we can,” said Kretz. “And Obama Claus ain’t coming back again.”

Millions in new fees

Although lawmakers approved no big general tax hikes, Washingtonians will see some costs increase.

Lawmakers voted to do away with a 7 percent limit on tuition hikes at the state’s four-year schools. Instead, they approved a budget that assumes colleges will boost tuition nearly 30 percent over the next two years. For community and technical colleges, the two-year increase would be about 15 percent.

Lawmakers also approved a voluntary $5 fee added to car license tabs, a move expected to raise millions of dollars and prevent the closure of dozens of state parks. And local governments will be allowed to add up to $20 to the cost of tabs.

Architects, contractors, plumbers, Christmas tree growers, funeral homes, Realtors and many health professionals will pay more in state licensing fees. Hunting and fishing licenses will cost slightly more. Some court filing fees will rise by $50 to $200.

“I think, on balance, the taxpayer has probably lost this session,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead.

Local bright spots

Although the state’s revenue forecast got worse and worse in recent months, there were some bright spots. Budget writers are counting on more than $3 billion in federal stimulus funds. And they were able to pay for tens of millions of dollars worth of construction in the Spokane region, mostly using long-term debt. The YMCA/YWCA will get $4.3 million for joint facilities in central and north Spokane. Spokane Public Radio will get $223,000 to boost its signal strength in rural areas. The Northeast Community Center will get $1.3 million for an expansion. And local universities and community colleges will get tens of millions of dollars for new buildings.

Lawmakers also passed a $7.5 billion transportation budget, which includes $28 million more for the multibillion-dollar North Spokane Corridor and $250,000 for work on a dangerous intersection at Highway 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road. Lawmakers also agreed that any savings on a current stretch of the North Spokane Corridor would go toward the next phase – a move that could mean $10 million more, according to Marr. Given falling prices for construction and supplies, he said, that savings looks likely.

Questions remain

Even with the budget on its way to the governor to be signed into law, much remains uncertain. It will take days or weeks for some of the budget decisions to trickle down to community programs and nonprofit groups. Lawmakers have predicted thousands of layoffs of teachers, state workers and college staffers, but those decisions will be handled locally.

Also, no state fish hatcheries were singled out for closure. But the budget says that if the Fish and Wildlife Department doesn’t take in enough money, half a dozen hatcheries, including one in Colville, may have to be closed or transferred to tribes or other entities.

As for parks, lawmakers say they’ve saved all parks from closure. But some small parks may still be transferred to local governments or tribes. And the parks budget relies on an assumption that most motorists will agree to pay the voluntary $5 annual fee on their licensing bill.

It also remains to be seen whether universities follow lawmakers’ advice and increase tuition up to the 14 percent a year that the budget assumes.

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or at richr@spokesman.com.


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