February 18, 2012 in City

House GOP releases its budget

Lead author says top priority is public education; tax increase deemed unnecessary
By The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – For several years, Republicans in the Washington House of Representatives have complained they have essentially been shut out of the budgeting process by majority Democrats. Friday, they stole a march on other legislators by releasing an alternative budget of their own.

The House GOP budget has some major differences from the spending plan Gov. Chris Gregoire released in November that called for some $2 billion in cuts and accounting transfers, then proposed “buying back” some of the most difficult program cuts by putting a temporary sales tax increase on a statewide ballot.

“I don’t think the voters are buying … and those programs would fall by the wayside,” said Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla.

“This is a budget that will set a mark,” Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said of the GOP proposal. “We are very confident this does not require a tax increase.”

It would not reduce state funds to school districts designed to help areas with lower property values, known as levy equalization, nor would it cut days off the school year to save money. It places the highest priority on public education, followed by programs that help the mentally ill, disabled and elderly, and those that enhance public safety, Alexander said.

But it does make cuts to close the gap between what the state expects to collect in revenue and what it is currently scheduled to spend on programs and salaries. It would order state workers to take off 24 days without pay between July 1 and the end of June 2013. It would reduce the maximum number of months anyone could receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from 60 months to 48 months. It would limit financial aid to two years for community college students and four years for students at the other public universities. It would eliminate the Basic Health Plan and the Disability Lifeline and sell some surplus property.

It also takes advantage of the $340 million or so reduction in the demand for services state agencies recently reported. That’s wasn’t known when Gregoire wrote her budget.

Rep. Ross Hunter, a Medina Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the committee’s budget will be released next week and will show the public a different approach to spending. Alexander took the task of writing a budget seriously, but the hardest part of writing a budget is not making it balance, Hunter added.

“It’s writing one that the majority of legislators in the House and Senate can agree on,” he said. “I don’t think this proposal meets that challenge.”

But Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, said it shows other groups drafting a budget that a plan can be written without a tax increase. The House GOP plan might not be the final budget, but it will be “part of the equation,” he predicted.

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