February 29, 2012 in City

Senate Democrats offer state budget

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – Democrats in control of the state Senate want fewer cuts in key programs than there were in the budgets proposed last year by Gov. Chris Gregoire and earlier this month by House Democrats.

Their spending plan released Tuesday does not call for a tax increase to “buy back” some programs that would otherwise disappear. It does rely on some accounting shifts – what some people call gimmicks – and draws down the state’s reserves below what Gregoire or other spending plans propose.

But it lacks support from Senate Republicans, or even enough support yet from Democrats. Asked if he had at least 25 votes needed to pass the budget in that chamber, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, replied: “Not yet.”

This latest budget was tossed into the mix of spending plans with nine days left in the 60-day session, on a day when legislators in the House locked horns over their spending plan, on issues like how much the state would spend on public schools and programs for the disabled and whether it should shift money out of environmental programs and toward what Republicans called “the most vulnerable in our society.”

Officials from public schools, state colleges and some social service agencies gave the Senate Democrats’ budget a good review.

Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist called it “the best budget for K-12 schools and higher education in four years.” Mary Fertakis, president of the Washington State School Directors Association, called it a “no cuts” budget for schools with predictable funding.

It “saves” $330 million by shifting a payment from the state to school districts from June 30, 2013, the last day of the current biennium, to July 1, 2013, the first day of the next biennium. The state used a similar accounting maneuver last year; legislation connected to this budget would make the shift permanent.

That shift is better than cuts to programs, and knowing the payment will always be made on that day will allow schools to plan for it, Fertakis said.

Gregoire proposed that delay, too. She also wanted to reduce payments the state makes to “property poor” districts known as levy equalization. Senate Democrats wouldn’t make that cut.

To Republicans who criticize the shift as an accounting “gimmick,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said they should decide which they’d rather do to come up with that money: make more cuts to state programs or raise taxes. Raising taxes takes a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, and the state has been cutting programs for several years because of the recession.

“The cuts we took last year went far enough,” she said.

The proposal also keeps the state’s Basic Health plan, a medical insurance plan for low-income residents who don’t qualify for Medicaid, and the Disability Lifeline at current levels. Gregoire proposed eliminating both.

Officials from Washington State and Eastern Washington universities also praised the budget, which does not cut work study programs or need grants. WSU President Elson Floyd called it “a profound commitment to higher education.”

The budget has critics, however. Jason Mercier, a budget analyst for the Washington Policy Center, said it does not fix the structural problems that cause regular gaps between what the state expects to collect and what it plans to spend on a regular basis. It has the lowest reserve of any of the budgets proposed thus far, he noted: $369 million, compared to $504 million for House Democrats, $602 million for Gregoire and $651 million for House Republicans.

“If adopted, lawmakers and citizens will have the privilege of going through the budget deficit yet again for the foreseeable future,” Mercier said.

Murray defended drawing down reserves: “The reason we have reserve is for a rainy day, and it is pouring.”

Unlike budgets that passed last spring and in a special session in December, this proposal has no support from Senate Republicans.

State Sen. Joe Zarelli, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said the proposal doesn’t uphold the principles that guided budget discussions in recent years. The plan “puts state government on course for another significant deficit next year,” he said.

A budget that had more reforms, fewer gimmicks and focused spending on core services would have a better chance of winning bipartisan support, he added: “There isn’t much time left in the session, but it’s still possible to do.”


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