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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington state Senate passes budget proposal

OLYMPIA – With strong bipartisan support, the Senate passed a budget plan described by supporters and opponents more in terms of what it doesn’t do than what it does.

It doesn’t put state spending out of balance, and doesn’t raise taxes or college tuition, supporters said. It doesn’t offer raises to public school teachers and doesn’t do enough toward meeting the court order to improve public education, opponents countered.

Both sides agreed the budget discussion will continue for the next two weeks.

On a 41-8 vote, the Senate sent to the House a plan that adds a net $96 million to the state’s operating budget, adding a few programs and rearranging some payments for others that have greater or less demand than expected during the remainder of the two-year fiscal period.

With it, the state will be in the black when legislators return next January, just as it was in the black when they arrived last month, said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond.

“It’s definitely not perfect,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, ranking Democrat on the budget committee, but it doesn’t cut social programs, has extra money for mental health care and some $38 million for school materials and supplies.

Some Democrats wanted to add in a cost-of-living increase for teachers, which is in state law thanks to a voters’ initiative but has been suspended for six years because of the recession. With the Legislature facing a Supreme Court order to improve public schools, the state needs to attract and keep good teachers, said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said he agreed teachers are an important asset, but cost-of-living raises aren’t part of the basic education funding mandated in the court’s McCleary ruling.

Maybe not, countered Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, but the most recent court order on education specifically pointed to the Legislature’s failure to approve raises for teachers.

The amendment to add teacher raises failed on a voice vote, although that’s not the final word on the raises.

The extra money the Senate sets aside for public schools is less than the $200 million proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee or the $160 million proposed by House Democrats. Both are proposing teacher raises among their increases.

To get to those levels, however, Inslee and House Democrats want to close some of the state’s tax exemptions. Earlier this week the House proposed adding the sales tax to bottled water and turning the exemption to the state sales tax for out-of-state shoppers into a refund program, among other changes.

The Senate budget has no tax changes that add more money but does have 10 new or continued tax exemptions that reduce revenue by about $10 million next year. The House budget, which will come to a vote in the next few days, has none of those.

Those differences mean negotiations between the two chambers and Inslee, and at least one more budget vote in the Senate before the session ends March 13. Hill, the Senate committee chairman, said the differences can be reconciled in those negotiations.

“We’ve got two weeks to go,” he said. “I see a path to get done on time.”