OLYMPIA – With the bare minimum votes needed and debate over taxes yet to come, Senate Democrats passed a general fund budget Saturday designed to close the state’s $2.8 billion budget gap.
Even without a firm decision on which taxes to add or alter to raise more than $900 million in extra revenue, the combination of programs cut, reserves tapped and federal funds corralled gave almost everyone in the chamber something to dislike.
Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, called it an ugly budget for an ugly time. And as the chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, it’s her budget.
Senate Republicans swung between complaints that the proposal doesn’t cut enough in tough economic times and that it cut programs doing valuable work that they support.
Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who is one of the staunchest opponents of any tax increase, said the proposal was wrong to cut the Frances Haddon Morgan Center in Bremerton for children and adults with autism, whom he said were among the most vulnerable in society.
“Some of these cuts in this budget are just too severe and too painful to people in the community,” Benton said.
Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, called the more than $800 million in budget cuts “token savings.” The initial proposal didn’t cut enough, and money for individual members’ projects got added back during committee hearings at the rate of “a million here, a million there.”
“We are fiddling while Rome burns,” he complained.
No, said Senate Majority Leader, Lisa Brown, D-Spokane: “On the contrary, senator, we are passing a budget. We are moving the process forward.”
Benton is right that the cuts are deep, and others are right that the taxes needed to support the proposal are higher than in recent years, Brown said. It’s a difficult budget, but it’s responsive to the needs of the public, she said.
In the end, the budget only passed because Democratic Sens. Chris Marr, of Spokane, and Claudia Kauffman, of Kent, switched from no to yes to get to the constitutionally required 25 votes. Marr said later he switched to yes “in the interest of moving ahead” but still has serious concerns that the budget cuts aren’t enough and proposed tax increases are too large.
To come up with some $918 million in new tax revenue, Senate Democrats proposed a three-tenths of a cent increase in the sales tax and elimination of some tax preferences or “loopholes.”
Although Democrats have 31 seats in the Senate, they don’t yet have 25 votes for a tax plan, Marr said: “Now we begin the discussions in earnest around loopholes and tax proposals.”
The Senate budget also gets sent to the House of Representatives, which has yet to announce how it would raise some $856 million in taxes to save programs it doesn’t want to cut.
“This puts pressure on the House. We’re accepting that we have to lead,” Marr said.
Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgeview, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said the problems Democrats had getting enough votes to pass the budget suggest two things. One is the problem could be even greater in passing tax increases. The other: “There’s an election in November.”
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