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Legislators have tentative budget ‘downpayment’

Mon., Dec. 12, 2011, 12:59 p.m.

OLYMPIA — Legislative budget negotiators have twin proposals to reduce the state’s fiscally challenged General Fund budget by about $480 million.

The plans — which are matching bills in the House and the Senate — involve a series of administrative cuts, fund transfers and savings being achieved in different state agencies. They do not involve any of the controversial eliminations of programs that Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed last month.

The plans are scheduled for public hearings this afternoon, about four hours after they were released. Legislators describe them as a “down payment,” something they can pass in the coming days during this emergency session, then return in January for the regular session for more budget work.

The projected gap between currently approved spending and projected revenues is $1.4 billion, and Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed cuts totalling about $2 billion to provide for a cushion if tax collections continule to fall. These plans amount to less than a fourth of that amount.

House Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the legislative proposals focus on administrative cuts and noncontroversial things to which both parties can agree: “We’re going to wind up doing this stuff anyway, let’s do it now.”

Some of the reductions are achieved through accounting maneuvers. For example, the state would delay a payment to schools to help cover bus depreciation for nine months, which saves about $49 million. It would make some changes in the way schools report enrollment, which saves money in some places, costs a little more in others. But there’s no change to the levy equalization program or the number of school days, which are key elements of Gregoire’s budget proposal. Overall, public schools would lose a total of about $54 million, not some $300 million in the governor’s plan.

“We don’t have consensus on cutting four days out of the school year,” Hunter said.

Also missing is any plan to eliminate the Disability Lifeline program or Basic Health Plan, which accounted for about $125 million in cuts in Gregoire’s budget. The Senate and House proposals would cut $1.5 million from the State Health Care Authority, in part through keeping vacant positions vacant.

“This is not easy stuff; this is easier,” Hunter said.


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