Proposed budget cuts hit schools and health care, but parks would remain open
Students will pay more to attend college, public-school teachers face the prospect of larger classes and the poor will have a harder time getting health care under nearly $4 billion in proposed budget cuts outlined by state lawmakers on Thursday.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Highlights of proposed state budget cuts• No state parks closed
• No income tax or sales-tax increase
• College and university tuition would increase up to 14 percent a year for two years at four-year institutions and 7 percent a year for two years at two-year colleges
• No cost-of-living raises for teachers
• Enrollment in state's Basic Health Plan cut by 40,000 people through attrition
OLYMPIA — Students will pay more to attend college, public-school teachers face the prospect of larger classes and the poor will have a harder time getting health care under nearly $4 billion in proposed budget cuts outlined by state lawmakers on Thursday.
The full budget has not been released, but the Legislature released a two-page document listing some of the cuts in a compromise budget backed by Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
Lawmakers propose cutting nearly $800 million from public-school funding, with the bulk it — $600 million — coming from the class-size-reduction initiative, I-728. Another $255 million in savings is expected to come from reducing enrollment by 40,000 people in the state Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized insurance for low-income workers. The reductions would be achieved through attrition.
The Legislature is proposing to help offset cuts to colleges and universities by allowing tuition increases of up to 14 percent a year for two years at four-year institutions and 7 percent a year for two years at two-year colleges. The net cut to higher education after the tuition increases would be around $325 million.
No state parks would be closed, as had been anticipated earlier, thanks to a new "opt-out" fee on vehicle-license renewals. The fee would be tacked on to annual vehicle-license registrations, but people who didn't want to pay it could check a box opting out.
Lawmakers said they were confident they had the votes to pass the budget. "I'm feeling very sure we have 50 votes to pass this budget" in the House, said Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she had the votes in the Senate as well.
The budget is expected to be voted on in the House first and then in the Senate. Lawmakers appear optimistic they'll finish by Sunday, the last scheduled day of the session.
Leaders in both the House and Senate on Thursday said they had no plans to send voters a proposal to increase the sales tax to buy back services that had been cut. An income-tax proposal touted in the Senate earlier also is dead.
This budget has been the most challenging in decades. The shortfall between now and 2011 is about $9 billion. Lawmakers are able to bridge more than half that with about $3 billion in federal stimulus money and other federal bailouts, cash set aside in the state's rainy-day fund and through budget cuts already adopted.
Counting the federal money, majority Democrats in the House and Senate are proposing a budget of roughly $35 billion for the 2009-2011 fiscal years. That amount includes $830 million in reserves.
Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt said Democrats are relying too much on one-time funding, the federal bailout money, for example, to balance the budget. That could leave the state with another budget gap in two years, he said.
"What they've done is not permanent," Hewitt said. "We're definitely afraid we'll be back here in two years."
Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said Democrats made a lot of tough cuts in the budget, but "we went about it in a very judicious way."
Gov. Chris Gregoire said budget was something she could live with. "I can't see some big overriding issue that would lead me to veto the budget," she said.
Gregoire said there were two issues she focused on: minimizing cuts to public schools and keeping "the doors open to higher education."
"When we come out of the recession, we've got to come out with a foundation of education. It's our economic future," she said.
School districts around the state, knowing cuts were coming, have been talking about raising class sizes, laying off teachers, reducing bus transportation, charging for participation in sports and eliminating all-day kindergarten.
In Seattle, the school board has already decided to close five schools and standardize school-start times starting next fall. In Issaquah, the district is notifying 158 teachers that they could be laid off, although that assumes the district won't receive any federal stimulus money.
Once the budget numbers are final, each school district will go through its own budget-cutting debate.
"The answer is going to have to be: Everything's on the table," said Dan Steele of the Washington State School Directors' Association.
State lawmakers say the average cut to school districts will be 2.6 percent. That might not sound high, Steele said, but it's still going to mean the loss of thousands of teaching jobs. And the proposal calls for eliminating two-thirds of what districts used to receive under I-728, which voters approved in 2000 to help districts raise student achievement.
Along with the I-728 cuts, the budget proposal also calls for suspending cost-of-living raises for teachers and making them pay more for health benefits.
At the state's colleges and universities, budget writers said the proposed tuition increases would effectively limit cuts to between 6 percent and 7 percent.
The budget would also eliminate about 9,000 full-time student slots and increase financial aid by $52 million to help needy students pay the higher tuition.
"Given everything, this is the best we could have hoped for," said Randy Hodgins, the University of Washington's director of state relations.
The UW has pushed hard for a large, permanent tuition increase. Hodgins said that while the increase is not desirable in an ideal world, it will allow the UW to keep its head above water for the next couple of years and will eliminate the need for drastic cuts to education programs.
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Seattle Times reporters Linda Shaw and Nick Perry contributed to this article.
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