OLYMPIA – Washington now has two “starting points” for its $32.5 billion operating budget, and each would take the state in very different directions when it comes to raising and spending money for the next two years.
Neither the plan released Wednesday by leaders of the Senate budget committee nor the recommendations released last week by Gov. Jay Inslee are likely to survive the next month of votes and hearings intact.
Leaders of the Senate Ways and Means Committee released a plan that would not institute a new tax, increase an existing tax or end any of the state’s many tax exemptions. “It protects our fragile economy by not raising taxes,” explained Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond.
Last Thursday, Inslee proposed closing a series of tax exemptions and extending some taxes due to expire June 30 to spend more on public schools. The Senate budget adds about $1.5 billion to the state’s public school system without tax increases, although critics noted it uses some of the same accounting maneuvers Republicans routinely denounce when Democrats write the budget.
In a prepared statement, Inslee called the Senate budget “deeply flawed,” saying education gains come at the expense of cuts to programs for children, families and the disabled.
The Senate budget was prepared by Democrats and Republicans on the committee, Hill said, although not everyone agrees with all parts of it. He couldn’t guarantee that the plan, as currently written, would get the needed 25 votes in the Senate. “It’s time to start the process” of hearings and debate, he said.
Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said there are probably only two sure votes for the budget at this point, his and Hill’s. And he seemed surprised the budget included a proposal to drop college tuition by 3 percent in 2014 and tie it to inflation and population after that.
“I don’t think we agreed to 3 percent tuition cuts,” Hargrove said at a news conference.
While some Democrats may want to consider more taxes, some Republicans may balk at some $303 million it would collect and spend by participating in the federal Affordable Care Act. “We’re up over our eyeballs in Obamacare in this budget,” Hargrove said.
At a hearing on the budget proposal Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said the tuition reductions are coupled with increased state funding for higher education and new formulas for judging performance: “At some point, we’ve got to draw a line in the sand and say ‘Students got to go first.’ ”
The higher education section of the budget has some $6.8 million for the new medical school starting up at Washington State University-Spokane. That’s a real plus, Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said, because the school is considered the community’s top economic development priority.
On the downside, Billig said, it has no money for Innovate Washington, a state agency designed to focus on economic development through public-private partnerships. And extra money for education “comes at the expense of services for the most vulnerable,” he said.
Committee hearings began on the budget proposal about four hours after it was released; a vote by the full Senate is in the near future, although not yet scheduled. The House is expected to release its budget, which will likely be much different from the Senate proposal, sometime next week.
Along with the operating budget, Senate Republicans and Democrats also released a separate $8.7 billion transportation budget for the state’s highways, bridges and ferries and the state patrol. Like the operating budget proposal, it has no tax increases to pay for new projects.
The Senate plan released Wednesday would spend $4.1 billion on highway improvements and preservation projects already on the books, including $68 million for the North Spokane Corridor through a combination of state and federal fund sources, and $200 million for the “deep bore” tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.