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Washington state Senate approves budget plan

OLYMPIA – A sharply divided Senate passed a “no new taxes” budget proposal Friday night with an extra $1 billion for public schools over the objections of some Democrats who denounced cuts to programs for the poor and disabled.

“It’s a great start,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “We know it’s not the end of the journey.”

On a 30-18 vote, with seven minority Democrats joining the coalition caucus that controls the chamber, the Senate passed the $32.5 billion spending plan and sent it to the House, which is expected to release a much different budget proposal sometime next week.

How long the journey might be was underscored earlier in the day with a letter from the state’s Office of Financial Management that raised questions about how the budget moves around some money, taps certain funding sources and may be overpromising on government savings. Some of the moves might be unconstitutional, the budget office warned.

Many minority Democrats accused majority Republicans of employing the kind of budget sleight-of-hand the GOP decried when they were in the minority.

“It’s not sustainable. It’s gimmicks,” said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who heard similar criticism of the budgets he wrote the previous two years.

Over several hours of debate, Democrats tried to add money for smaller class sizes for kindergarten and first grade, especially in high-poverty areas; for payments to the frail, elderly, blind and disabled; and for temporary aid for needy families.

“This budget picks winners and losers,” said Sen. Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma, pitting education against social services.

“These are some of the hard decisions we had to make … as we try to live within our means,” Hill said.

The state will add money for public schools, he said, but will focus on supplies and transportation, and give the districts more flexibility on how they want to spend money.

The budget doesn’t raise taxes, and it doesn’t “split hairs” by instead saying it is “closing tax loopholes,” Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said.

“We just play it straight.”

Democrats who voted for the budget said they hoped to add money for social programs and possibly find extra tax money as the process continues. “We believe there are still holes in this budget,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, the lead Democrat on the budget committee.

Some Republicans, too, said they were compromising on aspects of the plan, such as the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said it relies heavily on shifting costs to the federal government, which borrows some of the money it will send to the state.

“That represents a lot of debt for my kids, and it enables the dysfunction in Washington, D.C.,” he said.