OLYMPIA – Lean House budget proposals, which nevertheless would spend tens of billions of dollars in state money over the next two years, brought a chorus of protests from teachers, college students, advocates for the poor and disabled, and state employees who would see programs or wages cut.
But there was optimism, too, among business and civic leaders in Spokane because of a proposal to spend $35 million next year for a medical school at the Riverpoint Campus.
With just three weeks left in the session, House Democrats released two major spending plans Monday afternoon: A $32.4 billion general operating budget to pay for many state programs and salaries over the next two years, and a separate $3.1 billion capital budget for major construction projects.
In the latter was half of the $70 million being sought for the Washington State University Spokane Riverpoint Biomedical and Health Services facility. Although that money wouldn’t be available until mid-2012, when the state sells bonds in the second half of the biennium, it’s still considered a coup for Spokane leaders who stepped up their lobbying after the med school was left out of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s capital budget proposal in December.
Rich Hadley, president and chief operating officer of Greater Spokane Incorporated, called the delay “a minor pause” in the plan. “The key is momentum,” he said. Comparable Senate budgets will be released next week and the governor and both chambers must ultimately agree.
Also in the House capital budget is $30 million for the next phase of remodeling at Eastern Washington University’s Patterson Hall and $20 million for classrooms at Spokane Falls Community College.
The general operating fund budget, released shortly before the capital budget, tries to close a projected $5.1 billion gap between expected revenues and projected costs of existing services through a series of cuts to programs and salaries. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, called it “thoughtful, responsible and sustainable,” but still full of bad news for people involved in state programs.
Among the $4.4 billion in proposed cuts:
• $482 million less for higher education institutions, which the colleges will be able to offset in part through higher tuition.
• $362 million less for increases to retired state employees on the state’s oldest pension plans.
• $216 million from programs to have smaller class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grade.
• $177 million less for wages for state employees.
• $108 million less for the state’s Basic Health plan.
• $100 million less for the Disability Lifeline program, getting rid of cash grants but substituting some of the lost money with vouchers for housing.
It has no money for cost-of-living increases for teachers or smaller class sizes in public schools, which voters approved in separate initiatives in 2000. As Hunter and other House Democrats were releasing their budget, some 200 teachers filled a nearby hearing room to begin a day of lobbying for smaller class sizes.
Republicans said the general fund cuts should be deeper and that Democrats are trying to keep programs the state can no longer afford and keep a government larger than taxpayers can support. Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, said House Republicans will try to substitute a budget of their own Wednesday that reduces spending by another $1 billion and doesn’t rely on “gimmicks.”
Democrats propose selling the state liquor distribution center for $300 million, if it can get an offer from private industry. If not, the state would cut another $300 million in spending.
The budget needs the Legislature to pass about 64 separate bills to make changes to state law or programs, Hunter said. Among them is a plan to consolidate some arts and historic preservation programs, including state historical societies, into a single department that would have access to money that could keep Spokane’s Museum of Arts and Culture and Tacoma’s State History Museum open.
What the budget does not have is any proposal to levy a new tax, raise an existing tax or close a tax exemption already on the books. House Democrats said they don’t believe it’s possible to get the required two-thirds majority for a tax increase.
At a Ways and Means Committee hearing Monday, dozens of witnesses sought to restore cuts to programs. While the latest plan is “much, much better for children” than Gregoire’s budget, Jen Estroff of the Children’s Alliance said legislators should still look at tax exemptions “that don’t provide the same benefit to the state that healthy, educated kids do.”
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