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Washington Senate GOP unveils rival budget

OLYMPIA – Senate Republicans released a two-year no-new-taxes state budget Tuesday that is much different than the House Democrats’ spending plan for the next two years, putting both proposals on parallel tracks that could result in votes in each chamber by week’s end.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, the chief budget writer, described the new plan as “setting our priorities and living within our means … the citizens expect us to govern with what we have.”

House Democrats fired back that the GOP plan relies on unspecified cuts in programs and what House Finance Committee Chairman Reuven Carlyle called “hazy math” from an over-reliance on marijuana taxes. Republicans are prioritizing concrete over kids, Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson said, by approving increases in the gasoline tax and other transportation fees last month for the state’s separate transportation budget but refusing to do that for education.

If both pass, as expected, that likely would lead to weeks of negotiations between the chief budget writers in an effort to reach a single plan that both houses could pass and Gov. Jay Inslee would sign.

Inslee’s initial response was to congratulate Senate Republicans for releasing a budget but question the amount they are spending on schools and other state services, and contend the state tax system remains to regressive. He and House Democrats have proposed a capital gains tax on investment revenue above a certain threshold; Senate Republicans are against that and any other new tax.

To understand how different the budgets are, start with the bottom lines. The Senate budget would spend just under $38 billion on programs and salaries over the two years starting July 1; the House budget comes in at $38.8 billion. That’s up from spending in the current two-year cycle of about $33.6 billion.

Besides the $1 billion or so difference in total spending, there are sharp disagreements on how the two plans spend the whole budget. The state is under orders to improve public education, and Senate Republicans set aside $1.3 billion extra, compared to $1.4 billion in the House Democrats’ plan. Both put an emphasis on the state’s youngest students, with House Democrats spending about $70 million more on reducing the number of pupils in classes between kindergarten and third grade, and Senate Republicans spending about $7 million more to expand all-day kindergarten around the state.

Both would suspend part of Initiative 1351, which voters passed last year to reduce class sizes in all grades, to focus on the lowest four grades.

House Democrats have about $100 million more for early learning and child care programs; the $89 million they would spend on the Early Childhood Education Assistance Program is almost twice what the Senate Republicans would spend on that program that provides preschool and other services to low-income children.

Senate Republicans spend about $100 million more on higher education, partly a result of replacing the money colleges and universities would lose from their proposed tuition reduction. A tuition cut hasn’t happened at least since the 1970s, Hill said. Because of lower tuition, they are proposing cuts in some financial aid programs and nearly $40 million less in the Opportunity Scholarship program.

Democrats are only calling for a tuition freeze.

Senate Republicans get their biggest savings in wages the state pays. Teachers and other school employees would get a cost-of-living increase from the state, something required by a voter-approved law but suspended for the last six years. But state employees would not get the increases negotiated between their unions and the governor’s office. Instead, the Legislature would vote to reject those contracts and give all state workers a $1,000 raise in mid-2015, and another $1,000 in mid-2016. That’s a bigger percentage increase, and a bigger help, for workers at the lower end of the pay scale, Hill said.

The difference in compensation plans results in a swing of more than $430 million.

The two plans also treat tax revenue from marijuana differently, with Senate Republicans transferring most of an estimated $296 million into the general fund rather than dividing it among prevention, intervention and health programs set up in Initiative 502. Those programs would be covered by the general fund, Hill said. Democrats want to spend $157 million in marijuana taxes on Medicaid, replacing money that currently comes from the general fund.

House Democrats expect a vote on their budget by Thursday. Senate Republicans said their budget could be voted on on the same day.

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