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Washington Senate approves budget

OLYMPIA – The Washington Senate gave overwhelming bipartisan support to a $32.1 billion spending plan that sets the stage for negotiations with the House in the legislative equivalent of extra innings.

The 2011-’13 general operating fund budget pays for many of the state’s programs, agencies and salaries. The Senate proposal cuts almost all of them below the money needed to continue services at current levels.

Supporters in both parties said it wasn’t the budget they would have written on their own, but it was a spending plan the state could sustain in tough economic times. It calls for cuts to public school salaries, colleges, social programs and state-sponsored health care programs. It does not raise taxes.

“From my district’s perspective, this is not the best possible budget that could’ve been written,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. It wouldn’t ease school crowding, it would raise tuition and bump some families off the Basic Health Plan. “I would prefer a budget that had more revenue.”

But the public isn’t in the mood for tax increases to generate that revenue, so this was the best that can be done this year, said Brown, who was among 34 senators voting yes.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, had misgivings, too, particularly about proposed cuts to state colleges and universities. But the budget does not call for the state to spend more money than it expects to collect, lacks some of the gimmicks the House budget uses, and calls for significant reforms in some state programs, he said.

“People sent us here to be problem solvers,” said Baumgartner, who also voted yes.

Sen. Jeff Baxter, R-Spokane Valley, was among the 13 “no” votes. With the state and nation in a recession, it shouldn’t spend more in the next biennium than it does in this budget cycle, he said. He also thinks the state should keep open some homes for the developmentally disabled that the budget would close, and considers the prospect of a 16 percent tuition increase for the state’s top universities equivalent to “a tax increase for any family with children in school.”

Baxter also believes some state money would go to Planned Parenthood and be used for abortion. He said he wasn’t yet sure of the amount, but “whatever the amount is, I’m against it because I’m against abortion.”

While senators were quick to say they didn’t like parts of the budget they were supporting, they were effusive in their praise of the bipartisanship that crafted the plan. Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said the budget was “a big deal” equivalent to the first moon landing.

“This is the first bipartisan budget ever,” Hargrove said.

With only Democratic support, the House passed a budget about 10 days ago with many similarities, but some significant differences in the amounts that would be spent on the state-sponsored health plans, the structure of the Disability Lifeline for unemployed disabled residents, cuts to teacher pay and university funding. The House budget also relies on a $300 million infusion of cash from selling or leasing the state’s wholesale liquor distribution system, an item purposely left out of the Senate budget and questioned by Gov. Chris Gregoire, who must sign any spending plan that passes both chambers.

Negotiations now begin on a compromise, but neither legislative leaders nor Gregoire believe that can be done in the five days remaining in the regular session. Both chambers must also still pass all the separate legislation needed to change programs or agencies to make the final operating budget work – by some estimates as many as 60 separate bills – as well as the transportation and capital projects budgets.

The Legislature is expected to adjourn late this week and return for a special session after Easter Sunday.