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Sunday, March 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington officials announce state budget deal

Gov. Jay Inslee is joined by House and Senate leaders as he discusses an outline of an agreement they say has been reached on a new two-year state budget on Saturday in Olympia. (Associated Press)
Gov. Jay Inslee is joined by House and Senate leaders as he discusses an outline of an agreement they say has been reached on a new two-year state budget on Saturday in Olympia. (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – College tuition would fall, teachers would get raises and mental health funding would rise in a two-year budget deal announced on Saturday after long negotiations among state leaders.

But few details were revealed – indeed some numbers apparently weren’t even final – as officials promised in a news conference that they made a deal that will prevent a partial government shutdown scheduled to start Wednesday.

The deal, if both legislative chambers agree to it, will complete the longest budget debate in state history. This is the first time the Legislature will need three special sessions to approve an operating budget by the July 1 deadline.

“We’ll be in business Wednesday morning,” said Inslee, who was flanked by Democratic and Republican leaders of both chambers for a news conference.

He called it “a great stride forward,” but Inslee and legislators refused to release many details of the budget deal that had eluded them for the previous 162 legislative days. Some items must still be worked out by the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, Inslee said.

The budget covers about $38 billion. In recent weeks House Democrats had a spending plan of $38.2 billion and Senate Republicans of $37.9 billion.

It will reduce tuition at state colleges and universities, but the amount wasn’t announced. Senate Republicans had been holding out for tuition cuts of as much as 25 percent, while House Democrats had called for a tuition freeze and said cuts beyond 5 percent would require extra state revenue and could play havoc with the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program.

It invests $1.3 billion in basic education, which the state is under orders from the Supreme Court to improve, with provisions to expand all-day kindergarten and lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. But an initiative approved by voters last year calls for reductions in all grades, and to step away from that the Legislature will have to approve any changes with a two-thirds majority.

It closes some tax exemptions or “loopholes,” while extending some existing exemptions and approving some new ones. There’s a net increase in revenue because of the changes to tax exemptions, but the amount wasn’t revealed, nor were the particular exemptions. House Democrats had targeted nine tax preferences or exemptions in their most recent budget proposal; Senate Republicans just two. The budget would expand the state’s ability to collect taxes from out-of-state businesses that make sales within Washington.

For months, Senate Republicans had resisted any talk of adding any extra tax revenue, insisting the state was expected to bring in more than $3 billion in revenue above the current two-year budget period, and that should be enough. In recent weeks, however, they softened their line to allow for the possibility of closing some existing tax exemptions, while continuing firm resistance to proposals like the capital gains tax proposed by Inslee and House Democrats. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said closing some tax exemptions was “something we’ve always talked about” provided the change didn’t hurt the economy.

It has cost-of-living raises for state employees and public school workers, with “additional teacher compensation,” but that amount wasn’t spelled out. House Democrats and Senate Republicans have proposed different ways to boost school employee pay.

It increases money for the state’s mental health system, another area where the state is under court orders to make changes.

It adds money for state parks. Although the amount isn’t known, Inslee made a point of saying anyone who has a reservation next weekend at a state park can rest assured the facility will be open. If the budget stalemate had gone past midnight Tuesday, one of the casualties of a partial shutdown would have been state parks, which would have been closed to the public.

Asked why the public should feel confident that a deal with so many details still to work out can be finalized and passed by Tuesday, Inslee replied that he and the 10 legislative leaders flanking him wouldn’t be making the announcement if they weren’t confident it would happen.

The public might not be able to see those details before Monday. House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he hoped to pass the budget on the House floor Monday evening and pass it over to the Senate where it could pass before midnight.

Because Saturday was the final day of the Legislature’s second overtime session, Inslee called for an unprecedented third consecutive special session to start today at noon.

Negotiations continue on a separate capital budget for new construction projects, and a package of major transportation projects that would require an 11.7 cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax along with increases in some other fees.

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