December 10, 2010 in Region

Wash. Legislature prepares for Saturday special session

Lawmakers plan to make emergency budget cuts
Associated Press
 

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers prepared today to make emergency budgeting moves in an unusual “lame duck” special session, the latest drastic measure sparked by Great Recession-era budget deficits.

Lawmakers were attempting to make a significant progress in reducing the estimated $1.1 billion deficit in the current year’s budget, which covers general state expenses through June.

The special session was scheduled to begin Saturday morning, with lawmakers hoping to wrap up their work within 24 hours.

Estimates of the agreed-to savings package’s dollar amount were shifting as officials crunched the numbers. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s staff today estimated the plan would save perhaps $745 million, with the balance of the deficit left for the regularly scheduled 2011 session in January.

The emergency budget plan combines spending reductions — some previously ordered by Gregoire — with raids of off-budget accounts and a smaller amount of increased revenue found by ratcheting up tax-collection efforts.

Gregoire praised lawmakers for assembling the budget plan, but also reminded Washingtonians that some spending cuts could have serious consequences for people getting state services or working for the government.

“This isn’t about a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper,” Gregoire said Thursday night after announcing the special session. “This is people losing their jobs. This is about people potentially losing their health care. These are painful cuts, there’s just no question about it.”

Straight-ahead tax increases are off the table following the November election, which saw voters reject several new taxes and place renewed restrictions on the Legislature’s ability to raise taxes without a statewide vote.

That policy mandate and the special session participation of some “lame duck” Democrats recently defeated at the polls made the budget plan a bipartisan affair.

Such cooperation was an unusual sight in Olympia, where Democrats have controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office since 2005 and typically make operating budget decisions without Republican help.

“Many of the ideas that have been brought forward have been ideas that we have been saying for three or four years,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

Big dollar amounts for immediate budget savings were tied to health programs and other human services. Estimates released by Gregoire’s office showed reductions in that broad category totaling more than $200 million, including cuts in the Basic Health Plan and cash grants through the Disability Lifeline program.

Lawmakers also planned to wring about $100 million in savings from K-12 and higher education, including suspension of a payment meant to reduce K-4 class sizes. About $50 million in savings would come from the Department of Corrections, including previously announced plans to close the prison on McNeil Island in Pierce County.

Roughly $210 million would come from diverting federal aid that was intended to boost public education employment. About $50 million more would come from various unspecified fund transfers.

The state Department of Revenue also was expected to contribute about $45 million, including plans for a tax amnesty program that would encourage settlement of delinquent accounts.

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