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House approves two-year state budget

Proposal cuts $4.4 billion in state spending

Manuel Valdes Associated Press

OLYMPIA – House lawmakers on Saturday approved their version of the next two-year state budget, voting 53-43 in favor of a proposal that would slash $4.4 billion in state spending.

With two weeks left in the 2011 legislative session, Saturday’s vote advances lawmakers one step closer toward filling a projected $5.1 billion deficit in the state budget. The Senate is expected to release its budget Tuesday.

The House came first this year, rolling out a budget that cuts nearly $485 million from higher education and transfers about $215 million in funds. The House’s plan also halts automatic increases to state employee retirement plans to save more than $360 million, and it takes another $216 million from kindergarten through fourth-grade class-size programs. Some $177 million is saved from cutting state employee salaries.

After the Senate releases its budget proposal, negotiators for both chambers will try to hammer out a deal before the end of the legislative session. If they can’t, the possibility of a special session looms.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said she was more optimistic lawmakers will adjourn on time after seeing the House budget.

“We have a legal requirement to create a balanced budget even in time of significant decline in revenue, and we have done so,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“This budget is responsible,” he said Saturday. “We spend less in this budget, in this biennium, than the revenues we expect to bring in.”

Hunter’s budget proposal leaves about $790 million as an ending balance. His plan also assumes the Legislature will adopt a plan to privatize the distribution of liquor, which has historically been handled by the state, for revenue of $300 million.

Hunter said last week that the proposal is a work in progress and would need the support of the Senate and Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Brown said last week that the Senate won’t have the liquor distribution bid in its budget. Gregoire has also questioned the idea.

Both Democrats and Republicans lamented the budget Saturday, but for different reasons. One Democrat – Rep. Marko Liias of Mukilteo – broke ranks and voted against the proposal.

Majority Democrats, though, said the budget is sustainable and responsible as the state struggles to climb out of the Great Recession.

Minority Republicans said the budget keeps overspending and cuts too much from education, and some balked at the proposal of privatizing liquor distribution. In floor speeches, Republicans also repeated arguments that Democrats let state government grow too much when the state was flush in money.

“The problem is not as complex as it might sound. We really don’t have a revenue problem right at the moment, what we have still is a priority problem, how we spend that revenue,” said Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “The problem is we continue to spend more than we have available resources. … When you try to do everything for everybody, pretty soon you can’t do anything for anyone.”

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