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“Are those questions that could be resolved in the budget, or are those questions that would be resolved with a Ouija Board or something? Is it knowable?” – Appropriations Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, after being told the costs of expanding medical residencies for rural and Eastern Washington were not known in a bill that called for that expansion.
Staff told him that the costs could be assigned with specific directions in the budget.
OLYMPIA – Someone please give Senate Republican budget writers a new metaphor for hyperbolic parsimony.
Looking at the state’s less than cheery prospects of matching income to outgo last week, the chief GOP Senate budgeteer deployed the well-worn image of personal thriftiness, the squeezed toothpaste tube.
“I’m the kind of guy who, with toothpaste, I squeeze the tube as empty as I can get it and then I cut it open and scrape out the rest and then I buy a new tube,” Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond said. “That’s the way I approach budgeting this year" . . .
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OLYMPIA — Leaders of the coalition that controls the Senate say they have made a counter offer on the budget to the House Democrats, who yesterday announced a $33.6 billion spending plan for 2013-15.
It's a "comprehensive" offer, Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina said. It spends more than $1 billion extra on public schools.
So what's in it and how is it different from House Bill 1057?
"We're not going to negotiate in the press," Tom said at a press conference the Majority Coalition Caucus called, ostensibly to say they had countered on the budget.
Told that the House Democrats plan to spend about $1 billion extra for schools, too, Tom said the budget really only has $700 million. It relies on closing a list of tax credits to raise money beyond that level for schools, and that's not a reliable solution.
"It needs to be dependable funding," Tom said. "Going out to the voters, by nature is not a dependable source."
There's no guarantee the voters will say yes, he added. "This is not the Soviet Union where you can guarantee a vote."
But the House tax package does not have a referendum clause, its author, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said. It is expected to have an emergency clause, making it unlikely the taxes could be placed on the ballot by a signature campaign.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the House Democrats chief budget negotiator, declined to say whether the Senate Majority Caucus, which includes 23 Republicans and two Democrats, had presented a comprehensive counter offer.
"We're moving a budget so we have a vehicle," Hunter said. That process is public, but negotiations are in private. "I'm not going to characterize those private offers."
OLYMPIA – Washington faces a $900 million budget hole through 2015, a slightly smaller one for the Legislature to fill than previously thought, thanks to a slowly recovering economy.
Governor-elect Jay Inslee, a Democrat, reiterated Wednesday he plans to do that without a tax increase, a sentiment seconded a few hours later by Republicans on the state's Economic Forecast Council when it received the latest projection of money coming into and going out of the state coffers for the next four years.
The Democrat who heads the House budget committee, however, was skeptical. . .
(Editor's note: the original headline for this item incorrectly state the shortfall in billions.)
OLYMPIA — Admitting that it's not the final solultion to the state's fiscal problem but a way to "move the process forward", House Democrats passed and sent to the Senate a spending plan to fill the state's budget hole.
The most important aspect of the budget that passed on a 54-42 vote, Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter emphasized, is "it does not cut education."
That's a not too-veiled reference to a budget passed in the regular session by Senate Republicans and three break away Democrats that did cut public schools and colleges. That group has since proposed a budget that restored those cuts to education, but it has yet to receive a vote.
The House budget has no new taxes — some could be added later, including a tax on "roll your own" cigarettes the chamber passed earlier in the day and sent to the Senate — and leaves the state with an ending fund balance of about $336 million, or less than 2 percent of the overall two-year budget of nearly $31 billion.
"This is part of the resolution to the special session," Hunter, D-Medina, said. The 30-day special session must end at midnight Tuesday, and many state officials believe it will be difficult to meet that deadline
Republicans said the budget doesn't go far enough to rein in state spending practices.
"It's not sustainable without the reforms," Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said. "It detracts from the negotiations process."
The Senate could vote on the budget as early as tomorrow if its members can reach agreement on several reforms, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the chairman of that chamber's budget committee said.
OLYMPIA — House Democrats rolled out the latest version of a general operating budget this morning, along with several changes to state programs, but conceded they didn't know whether this exact plan will break the ongoing stalemate.
"We actually don't know if we have the votes for all this," Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, called it an effort to "get the ball rolling" and address concerns from Republicans that have been discussed in negotiations, rather than the final package of budget and supporting laws that will pass.
"It's mostly an effort to keep the process moving," Sullivan said. The clock is ticking. The last day of the special session is Tuesday, and in between are Good Friday, the beginning of Passover, and Easter.
Hunter said he assumes there are enough Democratic votes to pass the budget in the House, but some of the other changes that the budget relies on — changes to the state's early retirement plans, reduced class sizes that are on the books from a statewide initiative but often cancelled to cut costs, new rules for balancing the budget over two and four years — will need Republican votes to pass. Although Democrats and Republicans from both chambers have been in negotiations for three weeks, there's no indication the GOP will sign on.
In a report on Northwest News Service, Joe Zarelli, the top Republican on budget matters in the Senate, referred to reforms the Democrats were proposing as "dust." Senate Republicans, and Democrats who joined with them during the regular session to pass a very different budget, scheduled a press conference for 12:30 p.m. For a report on that press conference, click here.
House Democrats also said they would introduced a pared down version of the Capital Budget, which they refer to as the Jobs Plan, that is nearly $1 billion. It's that plan that has major state construction project, some of them funded by state bond sales and others by special accounts. On the list of projects from various accounts is some $37 million to complete the Biomedical and Health Sciences building at Washington State University's Riverpoint campus in Spokane.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, chairman of the Capital Budget Committee, said it was time to take advantage of low interest rates in the bond market to build the projects. All the projects listed would employ more than 22,000 people, most in the hard-hit construction sector.
But the Capital Budget is tied in part to the General Operating budget, which revenue projections and scheduled expenses say has a hole of more than $1 billion. Legislators struggled through the regular 60-day session and are 23 days into their 30-day special session, trying to fill that hole.
In past budget plans, Democrats have suggested an accounting shift that delays a payment to the state's school districts by a few days, moving it into the next biennium so it doesn't show up on the state's books. Republicans have criticized that as a gimmick, and the latest budget drops that.
It also does not have a Republican proposal to skip a payment to the state's pension plans, which Democrats have derided as a gimmick and did not include in previous budgets. Democrats are proposing one shift to the state pension system, eliminating for new employees an option for early retirement that was approved in 2007, allowing retilrement with a full pension at 62 for those with 30 years of service; Republicans also wanted another early retirement option passed by the Legislature in 2000; Democrats don't have that, nor are they calling for the closure of some other plans. That cuts estimates for long-term savings about in half, to $1 billion over some 20 years, but doesn't really help or hurt the General Fund's bottom line this biennium.
Instead of the delayed school payment or the skipped pension payment, House Democrats embrace a proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire to modernize the system the state uses to pay cities and counties the money collected for sales tax. That shifts about $238 million into a working reserve, and boosts the budget's bottom line.
The budget has no tax increases, and no reductions to tax credits or exemptions offered to busineses. It makes no changes to public schools or state universities and colleges, and drops a proposed 5 percent increase in Temporary Assistance to Need Families payments.
The package of reforms that will have a hearing this afternoon in the House Ways and Means Committee includes a new law that would require a two-year balanced budget and propose a way to create a four-year balanced budget. But that could fall short of a proposal by Senate Republicans and some conservative Democrats for a four-year balanced budget amendment.
OLYMPIA — House Democrats offered a budget plan that doesn't call for a state tax increase and doesn't make some of the cuts to public schools and state services that Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in November.
The school year wouldn't be shorter. The money the state sends to school districts to help make up for the differences in property values between rich areas and poor areas, known as levy equalization, wouldn't be cut. Inmates wouldn't be released early from state prisons.
But House Democrats did propose pulling back some state money currently going to counties and cities, then giving local governments the authority to raise local taxes to cover the difference. They do delay payments to school districts, in what some Republicans call an accounting gimmick. They reduce state employment by more than 1,500 full-time workers. They would leave less money in the treasury at the end of the fiscal period than either Gregoire or the House Republicans. . .
Rep. Ross Hunter checks his hands for tan after Gov. Chris Gregoire says legislators need to show up "tan, rested and ready" in January to cut more than the budget she signed Tuesday.
OLYMPIA – With advice to the Legislature to show up “tan, rested and ready” in January to finish fixing the state’s budget problems, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the $480 million “downpayment” supplemental budget.
It is, Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House budget committee, said, merely the first supplemental budget of the two-year fiscal cycle.
“Count on it,” Gregoire replied, adding the votes needed to find another $1.5 billion in savings will present legislators with “the worst votes they’re ever going to take in their lives.”
The budget signed Tuesday had bipartisan support in both chambers, but involves a number of fund transfers and accounting maneuvers to accomplish some of the savings…
OLYMPIA – School officials from across the state urged legislators to reject plans to cut four days out of the school year or reduce payments designed to help poor districts keep pace with richer ones.
The Legislature should consider other ways to cut education costs, they said, like state spending per student or teacher bonuses, or eliminating things the state requires, but doesn’t pay for.
A key player in the ongoing budget debate floated an idea to stave off the cuts proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire by increasing the state’s property tax levy and spreading it among districts throughout Washington. But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, acknowledged his plan was in its early stages, and represents a shift in the way tax rates are currently calculated…
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OLYMPIA — The House passed a bill that would loan a troubled public facilities district $42 million to avoid default, but only after limiting the way cities and counties involved can raise taxes.
On a 56-33 bipartisan vote, the House passed HB 2145, which would help the Wenatchee Public Facilities District repay investors after it defaulted on short-term bonds on Dec. 1. The money would be paid back to the state over 10 years, starting in 2013, and the cities and counties involved could raise local sales taxes by as much as two-tenths of a percent to cover the loan payments to the state.
But a change just before the bill came to a vote did not sit well with Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, one of the bill's original sponsors. The original bill said taxes could be raised by a vote of the local legislative body or the voters. The amendment allows a tax increase onlly if voters approve it.
"This takes us down the slope to total bond default," Armstrong said, and voted no.
The bill's two other sponsors, however, Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, and Ross Hunter, D-Medina, voted yes.
Officials at the Spokane Public Facilities District say they are watching progress of the Wenatchee PFD bailout closely, because Spokane is scheduled to sell bonds on Dec. 13 in an effort to cut costs by refinancing at a lower interest rate.
The Spokane-area delegation's vote can be found inside the blog.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans are said to be divided over a bailout to the PFD.
OLYMPIA — A Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee expressed serious doubts Friday the Legislature would pass a new budget before time ran out on the special session. And the chairman of the committee did nothing to contradict him.
At the start of a hearing on various programs that would be eliminated under Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed cuts of some $2 billion, Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, wondered if anyone in the room thought the Legislature "would vote the governor's budget out by the end of special session."
"I don't think it's going to happen," Hinkle said. "Are we really going to do that?"
Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, replied that was a question "the chair is unable to answer."
Hinkle asked for a show of hands for those who thought it would happen, but Hunter didn't allow that vote to proceed, and began taking testimony on a bill to reduce the state's payments to rural hospitals.
OLYMPIA – Washington officials are trying to come up with a way to decide whether it makes good economic sense to let someone else run wholesale liquor operations in the state.
About the time they’re ready to make that decision, the voters might take it out of their hands, and turn all liquor operations – wholesale, distribution and retail sales – over to private businesses.
But if voters reject Initiative 1183 in November, the state could still turn its warehousing and distribution system over to the highest bidder next year. Then the question becomes, how do state officials decide the best deal for the state?
A special committee formed by the Legislature wrestled with a way to answer that question Tuesday ….
OLYMPIA — Stop me if you've heard this one: The House general operating fund budget for the 2011-13 biennium will be released Monday.
That's the rumor, which is pretty much the same rumor floating around last Friday afternoon, except that last Friday afternoon when that was said, folks meant Monday of this week, as in four days ago.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, was purposefully vague today when asked about the timing.
"We have to have the votes and I'm still working it very hard," he said when queried by reporters in the wings of the House chamber. "I'm not saying when it will come out because I don't know. Typically it comes out on a Monday…I do not know when when I'm releasing it."
Releasing the budget on Monday would likely mean hearings later in the week, on days when labor unions, social workers, and faith-based groups plan to stage a series of protests in the Capitol demanding something that the spending plan almost certainly will not have:
Closing some tax exemptions as a way of increasing state revenue rather than cutting programs to close the budget gap.
In Tuesday morning’s paper:
OLYMPIA _ Trying to launch a big boat in rough waters, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Monday began making the case for a sweeping overhaul of Washington’s education system.
“All in all, we think this is the first comprehensive reform of the public education system in at least three decades,” said Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island.
Lawmakers began a full-court press for the bill Monday, with the first of several hearings.
Mary Jean Ryan, chairwoman of the state board of education, called Senate Bill 5444 landmark legislation that “offers a way out of the cellar of national education statistics in which we find ourselves.”
The plan, hashed out in many hearings last year, would:
-more broadly define basic education and commit the state to paying for it,
-dramatically rewrite how teachers are paid and trained,
-boost from 19 to 24 the number of credits needed for high school graduation,
-boost the number of state-paid classes in high school from 5 a day to 6,
-and add help for low-income schools and students learning English.
Supporters say the changes would mean higher pay for teachers, billions of dollars more for schools, and the state – instead of local school district taxpayers — covering far more of the cost of education. Ultimately, they estimate, the proposal would mean about 50 percent more money for Washington’s schools. But many of the changes wouldn’t start until 2011, and even then, would be phased in over six years.
“Getting the structural changes in place is much more important than getting a specific (budget) number this year,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. The state, he said, can start adding money as the economy improves. “You’re not trying to just put more money into the system. You’re trying to change how the system works.”
Trying to boost school spending 50 percent during a deep recession, said, Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, “doesn’t meet the straight face test.”
The proposal faces stiff competition from a competing plan backed by the associations representing school principles, teachers, administrators, non-teaching school staffers, and school