June 28, 2013 in City

State lawmakers reach budget plan

Spending deal averts government shutdown
By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – After 150 days of debating, posturing and negotiating, legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee reached agreement Thursday on a $33.6 billion spending plan to carry many state programs through the next two years. It also is expected to stave off a partial government shutdown that would have started Monday.

“State government will continue to operate,” Inslee said.

The deal should be passed by both houses and on his desk by 5 p.m. today, Inslee said in a brief announcement attended by a bipartisan group of 10 legislators. He released no details of the agreement, but legislative leaders later offered some broad outlines of the deal, either in meetings with their rank-and-file members or in interviews with the media.

Among them:

• An extra $1 billion would go to public schools, a jump in spending necessitated by a state Supreme Court ruling that the state is falling down on its constitutional duty to children’s education. It will expand programs for all-day kindergarten around the state and decrease class sizes for the youngest students, add 80 hours of instruction for middle and high schools and put more state money toward maintenance and transportation costs.

• A freeze in tuition for public colleges and universities for the coming school year, with an increase next year only if the schools add money to state need grants for low-income students.

• Health insurance for about 300,000 low-income residents through the expansion of Medicaid in the federal Affordable Care Act.

• A change in tax policy which extends a tax paid now by cellphone users to land-line phones.

• Allowing temporary taxes on beer and on service businesses to end Monday.

It cuts some social service programs, including Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and makes changes in state employee benefit programs, including a $25 per month charge in health care rates for smokers and a $50 per month fee for keeping a spouse on state insurance, if that person has comparable insurance benefits with another employer.

“There are no big ‘trophy cuts,’ ” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, using a term legislators sometimes use to describe high-profile political reductions to the budget. “It does what we all said we wanted to do at the beginning of the year,”

Spokane-area legislators, who generally were not involved in the private budget negotiations, said they were waiting for full details of the agreement to see its effects on local projects.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the budget meets goals of boosting education, holding down college costs and generally “lives within our means.” It takes advantage of increased revenue projections from a recovering economy along with tax law changes that have broad support. But it does not eliminate any tax preferences for businesses, which are more controversial.

“Over the last 24 hours, we’ve been doing the negotiations on the little stuff,” Hill said. Some items that remain controversial – including money for a study of fish consumption rates that eventually could halt or greatly increase the cost of developments – were taken out of the budget and will pass or fail on their own.

While negotiations have not been open to the public, Hill said “everything you’ll see in the budget has been pretty well vetted during hearings and votes on previous budget proposals. But he couldn’t guarantee that there’s nothing in the final budget agreement that didn’t have a public hearing.

“I think it’s a budget that has broad appeal,” he said.

Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, the House Republicans’ chief budget negotiator, said the public should have some comfort in knowing that all caucuses and all political positions were present in the talks. “At least everybody’s voice was heard,” he said.

A full version of the budget was expected to be made public today. “I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot of crazy stuff we made up in the middle of the night,” Hunter said.

Agreement on the budget came the same day the House resurrected and passed a plan to spend an extra $10 billion during the next 12 years on transportation, a combination of new construction projects, increased maintenance and additional money for transit. That bill, which failed by one vote Wednesday, would raise gasoline taxes by 6 cents on Aug. 1 and another 4.5 cents on July 1, 2014.

Democrats emphasized the roads and bridges it would help restore or build, including Spokane’s north-south freeway, which would receive $480 million.

The mega-project, which has been in the works since 1946, “is on the top of the list for everybody in our area,” has federal support and bipartisan backing in the community, said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane. The bill also has money for improving roads throughout Eastern Washington to get farm products to market and rural shoppers to the city, he added.

But Republicans warned the increase in gas taxes would fall hardest on low-income families and put stations in border communities at a disadvantage.

“It will be easier for the folks in north Spokane to drive down the north-south freeway to get gas in Idaho,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. The project has been on the drawing board since 1946 because the Legislature does a bad job of setting priorities, he added.

In the end, Riccelli and fellow Spokane Democrat Timm Ormsby voted for the tax increase and the package of projects that include the north-south freeway; Shea and all other Spokane-area Republicans voted against it. The bills now go to the Senate, where money proposed for a bridge between Vancouver and Portland remains a major sticking point for Republicans.

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