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Tax increases headed to Gregoire

OLYMPIA – Democrats in the Legislature filled a $2.8 billion gap in the state operating budget with an array of new taxes, cuts and money from Uncle Sam.

Despite arguments from Republicans that they were setting up another budget crisis in 2011, Democrats managed to push through what they described as a balanced approach to Washington’s tough economic times.

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, called the higher taxes needed to support the budget “flat out wrong” and “irresponsible.” State Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, said it was too far: “We are stepping on the precipice beyond our means.”

But Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the taxes and budget provide “the critical structures that support us as communities. I’ll never call it irresponsible to fund education and higher education.”

Budgets and taxes were the main issues of the 60-day regular session and the 30-day special session, legislators were moving toward adjournment Monday night.

The operating budget passed the House on Monday evening and was sent to the Senate, which passed the series of taxes on businesses and consumer goods needed to help support the spending plan. The House passed the tax package on Saturday.

The operating budget – technically a supplement to the two-year spending plan passed last year which is now $2.8 billion out of balance pulls in $757 million in new taxes, cuts $840 million in programs, pulls in at least $618 million in federal funds, and moves nearly $600 million around from other accounts and reserves.

Among the cuts are nearly $55 million by closing or reducing state prisons. Slated for closure in Eastern Washington is the Pine Lodge Correctional Facility for Women in Medical Lake.

In making the closures, budget negotiators “looked closely at a report done last year…and tried to minimize politics,” state Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, said. Pine Lodge is in the Spokane area, which has Brown among its legislative delegation and is in the district of Senate Minority Floor Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Brown said she had hoped to convince Gov. Chris Gregoire to keep Pine Lodge open, but that was contingent on county or city officials using a part of the facility for their prisoners. “I’m still trying to delay the closure date.”

That report, however, recommends leaving Pine Lodge open to have a corrections center for women inmates in Eastern Washington. Asked about the difference, Linville replied: “We used the report as a basis. We were trying to use real information first, and then we negotiated the budget.”

The budget also cuts more than $150 million in K-12 programs, $73 million from colleges and assumes almost $49 million in savings through temporary layoffs of state employees.

It uses money from the tax increases to maintain all-day kindergarten, gifted programs and levy equalization for public schools, state need grants for college students, the current levels for Basic Health and the Apple Health for children programs. Temporary assistance for needy family levels would remain at their current levels, as would most foster care payments and nursing home payments, and some nursing home cuts would be restored.

Approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee was a supplemental Capital Budget Plan that would spend nearly $241 million for major and minor construction projects.

Included in the supplemental capital budget are $3.5 million for the Biomedical and Health Sciences Building at Washington State University Spokane’s Riverpoint Campus and about $3.5 million in repairs, maintenance and improvements to buildings at Eastern Washington University. The proposed Spokane Aerospace Center also would receive $400,000.

The budgets have been under discussion since before the session began because the two-year budget approved by the Legislature last year has been out of balance almost from the day it went into effect on July 1, 2009. The gap between what the state can expect to take in from taxes and fees compared to what that original budget planned to spend grew to $2.8 billion by February. In ability to agree on a spending plan and tax increases forced a 30-day special session that is scheduled to end Tuesday.

But Monday afternoon was the first chance the public and some members of the Legislature got to see the finished product, which has been the subject of intense negotiations by Democratic leaders. Republicans who are in the minority and have refused to vote for any tax increases until significant reforms are made, have been largely shut out of the process.

“Just a few hours after we’ve seen this budget, we’re going to vote on the most important bill of the session,” Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said. “We’re leaving again, balancing this budget on the backs of our taxpayers…causing even more job losses.”

Democratic budget negotiators defended the short notice and review time before legislators vote.

“We have gone through this time after time,” Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said. “I believe our members know what’s in this. There aren’t any surprises.”

“It was mostly our budget 30 days ago,” Linville said.