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$32.2 billion operating plan earns bipartisan support

OLYMPIA – After 135 days of sweating, arguing and compromising over the state’s fiscal problems, the Legislature passed budgets Wednesday to keep state government running for the next two years, albeit on a somewhat scaled-back level, and build nearly $3 billion worth of capital projects.

It took a 30-day special session to settle on spending plans that could pass both chambers. That was accomplished Wednesday evening as the Senate gave strong bipartisan support to the $32.2 billion general operating budget for a two-year period that starts July 1, and near unanimous approval of a long list of state-funded construction projects.

The budget cuts every department and agency, trims wages for state workers and school teachers, anticipates tuition increases for college students, and revamps social programs for health care and the disabled.

When the time came for the operating budget vote, senators praised one another for crossing party lines and compromising on a budget in which everyone could find something not to like.

“It’s probably the most painful memory any of us have seen in years,” Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said.

“One can always find a reason to say no,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the Republican budget leader, as he urged GOP members to vote yes anyway. No one spoke against the budget, and in the end, 34 voted yes, only 13 voted no.

Several said it was the first truly bipartisan budget in decades.

A day earlier, the exact same budget passed the House Tuesday on a strictly party-line vote, with Republicans there saying they hadn’t had enough voice in shaping the budget, and decrying cuts to education.

There were also more than a dozen bills passed to change current laws to conform to the realities of the new budget.

The Legislature’s last day of the special session was alternately a study in slow deliberation and greased efficiency. Hours ticked by with one chamber or the other – and sometimes both – at ease for meetings and briefings. The Senate spent a half hour saying farewell to Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, who was appointed Wednesday by Gov. Chris Gregoire to the Northwest Power Planning Council, and almost as much time discussing a resolution in support of the Columbia and Snake river dams.

But legislators showed the ability to turn on a dime and move contentious legislation quickly. In less than a half hour, the House passed a series of bills that included a major reorganization of state government, reorganized the Disability Lifeline to end cash payments, set up a new system for college scholarships and cut state workers’ paychecks by 3 percent.

Some passed with few objections, others on party-line votes. The government reorganization bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, needed a coalition of House Republicans and moderate Democrats after some members contended it was cutting some state workers out of a chance to compete with private industry for state contracts.

Their ability to even finish seemed in doubt at mid-day, as a glitch appeared in the budget bill that threatened to force an amendment in the Senate and another vote in the House. At one point, Gregoire involved in some shuttle diplomacy, striding between House Speaker Frank Chopp’s and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown’s offices. The problem was worked out, she said, as she rushed though the Senate wings. So what was she worried about?

“Are they going to get out of here,” she said, looking at a much-folded paper with a long list of bills that all leaders had decided must be passed, but hadn’t.

In the end, the bills did pass, and the Legislature did adjourn.

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