OLYMPIA – After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations and speculation, the state Senate on Monday proposed a two-year plan to bridge Washington’s $9 billion budget shortfall.
As predicted, it includes some dramatic cuts.
An estimated 7,000 people – state workers, teachers, college staffers – would be left jobless. Those still employed would get no cost-of-living increase for the next two years. And there would be major cuts to the social safety net, including health coverage for the working poor.
State-owned planes would be sold. The McNeil Island prison would be closed, as would a school for the developmentally disabled in Selah and a juvenile rehabilitation center in Chehalis. Colleges across the state would have room for roughly 10,000 fewer students. Hospitals and nursing homes would be paid less for caring for the poor.
Lawmakers said they had no choice.
“This is a real budget and a balanced budget. It is a budget that attempts to share the sacrifices of this very difficult time,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
“You can’t spend money you don’t have,” added Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton.
The House releases its budget plan today. The two plans will be merged by late April.
Local cuts include 17 percent to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and 11 percent to the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute.
Washington State University’s budget would be cut 17 percent, including an estimated 406 fewer full-time employees. And Eastern Washington University would be cut 18.5 percent, including 100 fewer employees. Both WSU and EWU decreases would be partly offset by 7 percent annual tuition increases.
Virtually no new taxes
The plan is largely a no-new-taxes plan, although it would include a voluntary $5 annual fee per vehicle to stave off the closure of dozens of state parks. It also does away with a real-estate tax exemption for foreclosed homes sold by banks. It includes far more in tax breaks, including a $2.1 million tax break for newspapers.
Lawmakers are expected to ask voters for a yet-to-be-determined tax increase to offset some of the cuts. But they say they’re not counting on it. Brown said she knows that the public has been skeptical that deep cuts would become reality.
“This is a real budget,” she said. “It’s not a budget that’s a setup for something else happening.”
The state teachers union, advocates for the poor, and public-employee unions said the cuts would be devastating. Several lawmakers who wrote the budget plan agreed.
For the state’s colleges, facing half a billion dollars in cuts, “It will take 15 years to get back from this,” said Western Washington University English professor Bill Lyne.
“It’s going to do irreparable harm to the students in our classrooms,” said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association. Schools already are underfunded, she said, and the budget makes things worse.
GOP wants more reforms
Republican lawmakers, who are in the minority in both the Senate and House, had a very different take on the spending plan. Rather than reforming state spending for the long haul, they said, the Democrat-written budget largely preserves the status quo. They also say that for all the talk of cuts, the proposed budget would spend about the same as the last one.
“Instead of streamlining government and delivering services more efficiently and effectively, the Senate proposes to use nearly $5 billion in one-time federal and state money to backfill the overspending of the last four years,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia.
“Senate Democrats are choosing to increase K-12 classroom sizes so they can allocate more taxpayer dollars for state-employee health care, cut access to our colleges and universities in favor of continuing health care for illegal immigrants, and reduce support for nursing homes instead of freezing wages for all state employees,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.
The roughly $35 billion budget – including $3 billion in federal stimulus dollars – proposes:
•No state cost-of-living increases over the next two years for state workers, college staffers or teachers, and no additional money for home care and child care workers.
•$485 million less for the state’s colleges.
•Tuition increases of 7 percent a year at four-year colleges and 5 percent at community and technical colleges.
•Not paying school districts $754 million they were slated to get to reduce class sizes and train teachers.
•Eliminating $582 million in elementary school staffing and “levy equalization” to help poor schools.
•Cutting 120 beds for civilly committed people at state psychiatric hospitals by September, saving $29 million.
•Closing the state prison on McNeil Island. Savings: $16 million.
•Cutting spending on the Basic Health Plan – subsidized coverage for the working poor – by 42 percent.
•$107 million less in reimbursement for hospitals that care for people who cannot pay.
•Cutting 3,000 people – plus another 3,000 who were expected to sign up – from a state program that provides health care and $339-a-month stipends to people who cannot work. Half of the recipients are mentally ill; some are homeless. Health benefits would also be changed. Savings: $190 million.
•$38 million in cuts to payments for state-paid patients in nursing homes.
•Cutting transportation services and making other changes to adult day health programs that care for elderly or disabled people: savings: $19.5 million.
Parks would remain open
The Senate plan includes a $5 voluntary donation included in vehicle registrations, with the money going to pay for state parks.
Although some people will refuse to pay, the change is expected to raise $28 million, which would allow all state parks to remain open. Otherwise, park officials say they’re prepared to close dozens of parks across the state, including Mount Spokane State Park.
Deeper cuts avoided
To avoid even deeper cuts, Senate budget writers shifted some money and made other accounting changes. They saved $411 million, for example, by changing the formula for pension contributions for state employees, teachers and some other public employees. Both the state and workers would pay less.
Budget writers also shifted $743 million that would normally be spent on construction into the state’s operating fund. They said they tried to shield K-12 education from the cuts, only to see state revenue forecasts drop by $3 billion in recent months.
After factoring in hundreds of millions of new federal dollars, Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said that school districts would face a 2.5 percent to 3 percent budget cut in most cases.
“The last thing we wanted to cut was education,” said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, who called it “a gut-wrenching day.”
Some spending rose, including $110 million more for an expected 25 percent rise in the number of families on welfare over the next two years, as well as $2.5 million more for food stamps.
Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, said he hoped that people affected by the cuts would understand.
“The fact is that these are no different than the decisions that have been made across kitchen tables and in businesses for the last year in this state,” he said. “People have been having conversations about Mom losing a job, about Dad taking a second job, about ‘can we afford the mortgage,’ about ’can the kids go to college’ …. People are living through tough decisions every day.”