OLYMPIA – Washington state lawmakers quickly approved a plan to shrink the state’s $1.1 billion deficit in a one-day special session Saturday, a preview of heavier budget-balancing work that lies ahead.
The Legislature’s bipartisan plan cuts state spending, raids off-budget accounts and counts on stepped-up collection of existing taxes to trim about $590 million from the deficit through June.
Further spending cuts and other steps identified by Gov. Chris Gregoire could subtract about $110 million more from the deficit. The rest will have to be addressed in Gregoire’s proposed supplemental budget.
“I am very proud of what the Legislature was able to do today and how they did it,” Gregoire said. “I think it’s historic, the bipartisan way in which they stood up to the most challenging time in 80 years.”
State officials face even larger deficit problems in the next two-year budget, which covers spending from mid-2011 to mid-2013. The shortfall in that nearly $33 billion budget is estimated at about $4.6 billion, the second straight two-year budget cycle dominated by slow tax collections.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said there were two lessons to glean from the special session: “One, this is going to be incredibly challenging. Two, things do go faster when there is bipartisan agreement.”
Straight-ahead tax increases were off the table following the November election, which saw voters reject new taxes and place renewed restrictions on the Legislature’s ability to raise taxes without a statewide vote.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said Saturday’s actions were just first steps “in managing our way out of this recession.”
About a dozen protesters stood in the rain to greet lawmakers heading to committee hearings. They carried signs encouraging higher taxes on the rich and sang Christmas-carol protest songs.
“We’re going to see really draconian cuts. I wanted to make sure people in poverty have a strong voice here at the Capitol,” said Jean Squires, a 29-year-old student at Evergreen State College who was holding a sign that read “Poverty is immoral.”
Gina Petry, who was working with a campaign called Sisters Organized for Survival, said that even people who don’t currently use the services at risk should be worried about the cuts.
“All it takes is one layoff or one accident, and they can be in a position to need these services,” she said.
Most of the spending cuts in the Legislature’s $590 million plan were tied to education and social service programs, with each category reduced by about $100 million. That included suspension of a payment meant to reduce K-4 class sizes, reductions in Basic Health spending and smaller cash grants through the Disability Lifeline program.
About $50 million would come from the Department of Corrections, including plans to close the prison on McNeil Island in Pierce County.
Roughly $210 million would come from diverting federal aid intended to boost public education employment. About $55 million more would come from various smaller fund transfers.
The state Department of Revenue also was expected to contribute about $45 million, including plans for a tax amnesty program that would encourage settlement of delinquent accounts.
Gregoire signed the bills into law Saturday night.
“The Legislature is at last moving in a positive direction,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. “It took far longer than it should have to get to this point, but perhaps the severity of the budget situation is now understood in all quarters.”
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