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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington Senate, House budgets far apart

OLYMPIA – Senate Republicans released a $38.2 billion budget plan Wednesday that would spend less on schools, mental health or homeless programs than either the House Democrats or Gov. Jay Inslee have proposed.

Unlike the other spending plans, the Senate supplemental budget relies on no tax changes and doesn’t tap the state’s emergency reserves, even though Republicans in both chambers have signaled the cost of fighting last year’s wildfires should come out of a special account generally called the Rainy Day fund.

“We spend less money than the House does,” Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said. “If you don’t spend as much money, you don’t have to go into the Rainy Day fund.”

The spending plans, which make adjustments for the second half of the state’s two-year budget, are so different that the Legislature may need to go into overtime to reach a compromise.

The Senate proposal increases some spending on low-income health care, mental health programs and salaries at the state mental hospitals, state prisons and some college programs. It partially balances those costs with some savings from merging two of the state’s oldest pension programs, tapping some reserves for regional mental health programs and using unexpectedly high tax revenues from legal marijuana sales for some low-income medical programs and health clinics.

Increases total about $168 million while cuts total about $119 million. The proposal would take some $6.6 million out of state Lottery Funds to pay for charter schools, which the state Supreme Court has ruled do not qualify for money from the General Fund. The Senate passed legislation to make such a change for charter schools, but that bill has not yet passed a House committee and money for those schools is not included in the House proposal.

The Senate plan also sets aside $15 million for possible claims against the state for a computer programming error at the state Department of Corrections that allowed some 3,200 inmates to be released early. Some are charged with committing crimes when they should still have been in state custody.

Missing from the Senate Republican proposal are overall raises for beginning teachers, which Inslee and House Democrats say are needed to meet a shortage of teachers around the state. It also spends less on homeless programs and expansion of mental health services, which House Democrats contend are needed to address crisis situations.

The House Democrats budget proposes eliminating four tax exemptions and limiting two others. The Senate Republicans budget assumes no such tax changes.

Leaders of the two chambers have 14 days left in the regular session to work out the differences between their two spending plans and produce a budget Inslee will sign. If they don’t, they face the sixth year in the last seven that required a special session.

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