OLYMPIA – Realizing it wouldn’t find $2 billion in budget savings in 30 days, the Legislature settled Wednesday on a fourth of that in 17 days, and called it quits for now.
The Senate approved a $480 million budget adjustment Wednesday afternoon that uses a combination of budget transfers, accounting maneuvers and cuts to state programs or departments. The rest of the savings, and possibly more if the state’s economic outlook doesn’t improve, will have to wait for a 60-day regular session that starts in less than three weeks.
So will any proposals to raise taxes or reform government.
Like the House on Tuesday, the Senate gave overwhelming and bipartisan support to the changes to the General Fund budget, known by some as the “early action package” and by others as a partial down payment.
Those who are disappointed because the savings aren’t greater right now can blame him, said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. It’s not particularly helpful to cast blame, he said, “but I’m willing to take that responsibility. Then, let’s move on.”
Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Senate budget panel, called it “a good start on a huge problem.” While Gov. Chris Gregoire was able to name $2 billion worth of cuts she could approve in the two months after a bad revenue forecast in September, Zarelli said, she only had to get one vote for those choices: hers.
In the Legislature, “you’ve got to move these things back and forth,” Zarelli said. “I’m happy that we’re getting something done.”
Gregoire had also proposed that the Legislature ask voters to “buy back” about $500 million of the cuts she was suggesting, especially cuts in state funding poorer school districts receive through a process called levy equalization, and a four-day reduction in the school year. To do that, she asked the Legislature to put a proposal on the March ballot for a temporary increase of a half-percent in the sales tax. The Legislature didn’t consider that, although some tax increases are likely to come up in January and February.
In congratulating legislators for at least making a down payment on the budget problems, Gregoire said they should continue negotiations on further cuts to make sure a more complete budget is passed early in the regular session. “Now is not the time to rest,” she said in a prepared statement.
One of the things in the current budget fix is a nine-month delay of payments to school districts for school bus maintenance and depreciation. That saves the state almost $50 million, at least on paper, but could leave schools in trouble if their buses break down. Murray said the Legislature will set up a contingency fund for hardship cases when it returns in January.
Among those voting no were Republican state Sens. Mike Baumgartner of Spokane and Mike Padden of the Spokane Valley.
Baumgartner called the budget “the lowest common denominator” of what budget negotiators could agree to. “I think a lot more could’ve been done. It’s still Wednesday, Dec. 14. There’s no reason we couldn’t work through this process some more.”
Padden said the budget fix relies on too many gimmicks, like the bus depreciation. “That’s not real savings,” he said. “It’s not some of the real reforms we should’ve been looking at.”
Along with the budget adjustments, the Legislature approved a package of programs designed to boost training for aerospace jobs, one of the growing segments of the state’s economy, and asked Congress to change federal law so that online retailers will collect sales tax from their customers and send Washington its share of the taxes from those sales.
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