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Originally published Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 9:16 PM

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Bipartisan state budget passes

State lawmakers put their final touches on deep spending cuts as they ended a dreary budget-slashing special session Wednesday night. The Senate approved more than $4 billion in recession-driven budget cuts — to higher education, social services, health care and other programs — a day after the same budget passed the House.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

quotes WA State doesn't have a tax revenue problem. It has a spending problem. Read more
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OLYMPIA — State lawmakers put their final touches on deep spending cuts as they ended a dreary budget-slashing special session Wednesday night.

The Senate approved more than $4 billion in recession-driven budget cuts — to higher education, social services, health care and other programs — a day after the same budget passed the House.

Democrats and Republicans engaged in a praise-a-thon as the budget sailed through the Senate on a bipartisan 34-13 vote — with no one speaking in opposition.

Top Senate GOP and Democratic leaders traded compliments on what some called a historically bipartisan agreement to deal with a set of tough budget choices.

"I really think that the civility we have demonstrated here in this chamber should be a model for the nation," said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam.

The Senate's budget vote cleared the way for lawmakers to adjourn shortly before 10:30 p.m. on the final day of the 30-day special session, which was called by Gov. Chris Gregoire after lawmakers couldn't finish their work in the regular session.

The budget now goes to Gregoire for her signature.

The Legislature's decisions may not prove the final word on all the budget actions.

Even as lawmakers wrapped up their work, several groups were threatening lawsuits or initiatives to overturn budget cuts. Meanwhile, some Democrats hoped to pave the way for an eventual challenge to tax-limiting Initiative 1053, which kept tax increases off the table this session.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said his party had little choice but to cooperate with Republicans to pass the two-year, $32 billion budget.

"Many of us would have preferred other options, but those options were not available to us," he said before the final budget vote.

There were enough conservative Democrats in the Senate to give the GOP more influence over the budget this session. If his caucus had not pursued a bipartisan process, the Republicans could have written the budget, Murray said.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, agreed. "That's the way it would have gone," he said.

When asked if Republicans ended up driving much of what happened this session, Hewitt chuckled and said, "I'm not going to disagree. I think we did drive a tremendous amount of policy."

He listed a number of issues, including legislation to reduce costs in the state workers' compensation system, and various changes to reduce state spending.

Murray disagreed about the extent of the GOP's power. The fact that Democrats offered to build a bipartisan budget helped their party prevent deeper cuts, he said.

In the end, the budget made more than $4 billion in cuts, including a 1.9 percent reduction in teacher pay and cuts in social services for the poorest Washingtonians. State support for higher education also was slashed, and students will see large tuition increases. State worker pay was cut 3 percent through unpaid time off.

Republicans and conservative Democrats by no means got everything they wanted. For example, their push for a constitutional amendment reducing the state debt limit ended with a compromise that calls for a gradual lowering of state borrowing, but the measure won't be enshrined in the constitution and could be undone by future legislatures. The Legislature also will appoint a blue-ribbon task force to study debt limits.

A more solid Democratic majority in the House did not offer Republicans as much sway in that chamber.

Several groups already are threatening to contest the Legislature's cuts.

Greg Devereaux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said his group is looking at suing over changes to the state pension system, including the elimination of automatic cost-of-living increases for the closed Plan 1 pensions. "A number of things are constitutionally protected, and we think it's a trust. We don't think they can take it away from folks."

The state hospital association also has threatened to sue over reductions to Medicaid reimbursement rates. And the union representing state home-care workers also said it may run an initiative seeking to restore cuts.

Meanwhile, some hoped a late-session maneuver by House Democrats could help set up a challenge to the constitutionality of Initiative 1053, which requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers to raise taxes.

Before a debate on whether to end a tax break for big banks on mortgage interest, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, engaged in a scripted exchange with other Democratic lawmakers before ruling the bill needed a two-thirds vote to pass. The bill failed on a 52-42 vote — a predictable outcome given Republican opposition.

Many Democrats, labor groups and social-services organizations believe the two-thirds requirement violates the state constitution. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, sued over the supermajority requirement in 2008, but the state Supreme Court declined to overturn it. However, the court ruling dodged the underlying constitutionality issue and some Democrats believe a carefully crafted challenge could be successful.

Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who helped organize the maneuver, stressed that he was not aware of any imminent plans for a lawsuit challenging I-1053. But he said he would "love to see it," citing a deep frustration with the supermajority requirement, which he believes violates the state constitution. "It [I-1053] puts the minority in charge," Pedersen said.

Earlier Wednesday, lawmakers approved a proposal that moves the state closer to privatizing the distribution of liquor.

The measure directs the Office of Financial Management (OFM) to seek contracts for private companies to operate the state's liquor-distribution system. OFM would decide whether the bids are good for the state.

Late Wednesday night, the Legislature also passed a bill allowing King County to dedicate some local hotel taxes to arts and heritage groups as well as some housing projects once the debt on the Kingdome is retired.

But lawmakers did not extend more controversial taxes related to Safeco Field, which are due to expire this year.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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