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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Pacific NW

Senate proposes spending less, cutting more

OLYMPIA – Senate spending plans for the next two years propose cuts for public schools, colleges, health care and social service programs.

College tuition would be higher, paychecks to state workers and school teachers would be lower, and some families would no longer qualify for state-supported health care.

But there are some bright spots for the Spokane area in the proposals released Tuesday evening. The proposed $2.9 billion capital projects budget has some $60 million for a new medical school in Spokane – about $25 million more than the House proposal released last week. The biennial operating budget has nearly $3 million to keep the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture open in Spokane.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said the bipartisan group that put together this spending plan is proposing to spend less and cut more than the proposal that passed the House last week.

“This is not a budget of choice. It is a budget of necessity,” Murray said.

But Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, insisted it was a good budget for the state’s residents because it doesn’t rely on accounting gimmicks or one-time cash payments from the federal government. “We made some hard decisions about reducing spending.”

The $32.6 billion operating budget proposes cuts totaling some $4.8 billion from existing programs, services and salaries. It levies no new taxes, raises no existing taxes and closes no tax exemptions.

Like the House budget, it does not reduce class sizes in public schools, which was mandated by voters in a 2000 initiative. It would provide money for smaller classes for kindergarten through grade 3 in some high poverty schools.

The Senate operating budget also does not pay for cost-of-living increases to teachers, as required by a separate initiative that year. Instead, teachers and other school employees would get the same 3 percent wage cut as state employees. State workers would also take between two and eight days off without pay, depending on their annual salaries.

The proposal also freezes enrollments in the state-funded Basic Health program and reduces enrollments in Children’s Health and the number of disabled people eligible for medical care through the Disability Lifeline. Cash payments to those on the Lifeline program, also known as General Assistance/Unemployable, would also be eliminated.

State payments to hospitals, community clinics and emergency rooms would be reduced.

The state’s colleges and universities would see an overall reduction of $535 million spread across the two-year and four-year institutions. That’s a larger cut than the House proposed, but it is partially offset by authority for tuition increases higher than the other chamber approved. Washington State University, the University of Washington and Western Washington University would be allowed to increase tuition by up to 16 percent, Central Washington University and The Evergreen State College by 14 percent, and Eastern Washington University by 11 percent.

All areas of state government face reductions, but some would be saved from the elimination proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in her initial budget plan released in December. Among them are the Eastern Washington State Historical Society, which operates the MAC in Spokane, and the Washington State Historical Society, which runs the State History Museum in Tacoma. Both would receive enough money to stay open, but at reduced hours.

The operating budget is separate from the capital budget, which is essentially a list of projects – buildings, infrastructure and land purchases – the state will pay for over the next two years.

Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, chairman of the Capital Budget Committee, said that proposal was good news for the construction industry, which could see some 43,000 jobs from the projects.

Among those projects is the Biomedical and Health Sciences Building at WSU-Spokane’s Riverpoint campus. Another $30.5 million would be spent to finish the remodeling of Patterson Hall on EWU’s Cheney campus.

This spending plan must now pass the Senate, then be reconciled with the House budget with a compromise that can pass both chambers and be signed by the governor.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the chairman of the House budget-writing committee, said Tuesday evening the two budgets match up in some areas “but there are areas that concern me, particularly around K-12 spending.”

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