OLYMPIA – Democrats in the Legislature filled a $2.8 billion gap in the state operating budget with an array of new taxes, spending 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 went 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 and Senate on Monday evening. The Senate also passed the series of taxes on businesses and consumer goods needed to help support the spending plan. The House passed the tax package 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 $755 million in programs, taps at least $618 million in federal funds, and moves nearly $700 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,” said Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham. 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 persuade 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,” Brown said.
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 families 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.
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