Legislators found $480 million in savings; $1.5 billion to go
OLYMPIA – With advice to the Legislature to show up “tan, rested and ready” in January to finish fixing the state’s budget problems, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the $480 million “down payment” supplemental budget.
It is, said state Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House budget committee, merely the first supplemental budget of the two-year fiscal cycle.
“Count on it,” Gregoire replied, adding the votes needed to find another $1.5 billion in savings will present legislators with “the worst votes they’re ever going to take in their lives.”
The budget signed Tuesday had bipartisan support in both chambers, but involves a number of fund transfers and accounting maneuvers to accomplish some of the savings. For example, the state “saves” $49 million by delaying for nine months a payment to schools for transportation maintenance. It sells abandoned securities without the current three-year wait, for a quick, one-time gain of about $50 million.
Gregoire also signed bills passed during the short special session that allow the state to set up more training programs for aerospace workers, allow military spouses to receive permits or licenses more quickly when they move to Washington if they have similar certification in another state, and provide mediation on some home foreclosures.
Decisions on some major program changes, which Gregoire has proposed but legislators oppose, remain for the General Fund budget. They include such things as fewer days in the school year, major reductions in levy equalization for poorer school districts, or elimination of the state’s Basic Health and Disability Lifeline programs. She also supports asking voters to approve a three-year, half-cent increase in the state sales tax to “buy back” some of those programs.
Gregoire repeated her support for the sales tax increase, both when signing the budget reductions and announcing a new Opportunity Scholarship program. The scholarships are designed to help students who have good grades and an aptitude for math and science get into college when it seems just out of reach for their middle-class families. The state has received grants of $25 million each from Boeing and Microsoft, and has placed $5 million into a scholarship fund that aims to eventually reach $1 billion.
Even with the new scholarship fund, the state is “out of balance” between the level of cuts it has made to public schools and universities, the sharp increases in college tuition, and the money available to help students, she said.
The board appointed to oversee the scholarships and set the criteria for qualifying includes Jim Albaugh, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes; Brad Smith, general counsel for Microsoft; and Jerry Grinstein, a venture capitalist and former CEO of Delta Air Lines.
While they didn’t come out firmly in support of a sales tax increase, Smith said Gregoire’s proposal focuses on what the state needs most.
Said Albaugh, “Revenues have to be something we consider. We support additional funds for education.”
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