State Senate budget plan would rescind gains
The state budget proposed by Senate Democrats on Monday does more than cut spending by $3.8 billion — it rolls back much of the party's agenda.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
$786 million in reductions, including 45,000 fewer enrollees in the state's Basic Health Plan
$877 million less for staffing, assistance for poorer school districts and other programs
$513 million in cuts, resulting in 10,000 fewer student slots at state colleges and universities
$168 million in cuts, with closures of McNeil Island prison, Green Hill School juvenile center
OLYMPIA — The state budget proposed by Senate Democrats on Monday does more than cut spending by $3.8 billion — it rolls back much of the party's agenda.
During the past four years, Democrats have spent billions of dollars reducing class sizes in public schools, increasing teacher pay, adding slots for students at colleges and universities, and increasing access to health care.
Overall state spending jumped 31 percent.
Now, amid the deepening recession and a big drop in tax collections, Democrats are planning to cut many of those same programs.
"We are absolutely going to do that," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. But, she added, "It's very hard to pull back" on programs such as the state's Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized medical coverage to lower-income families.
House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, agreed the cuts are difficult to make: "We're losing ground, which is really too bad."
The Senate's 2009-2011 budget would cut $877 million for public schools, $785 million for health care and $513 million for higher education. It's largely up to state agencies, universities and school districts to figure out how to make the cuts.
The budget also would eliminate pay increases for state workers and teachers, and require them to pay more for health-care benefits.
The reductions would eliminate more than 10,000 slots for students at state colleges and universities, and close the McNeil Island prison and Green Hill juvenile-detention center, and could result in up to 8,000 layoffs among state employees and educators.
The budget even eliminates three King Air turboprop airplanes used by Gov. Chris Gregoire, Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, the State Patrol and the Department of Corrections. The planes would be sold.
The cuts — along with federal stimulus money, use of state reserves, a transfer of money from construction accounts, and some earlier budget reductions — are intended to fill a $9 billion budget shortfall between now and mid-2011.
The shortfall is the difference between projected state revenues and what it would cost to continue state services at current levels, plus pay for wage and benefit increases, any new programs and to keep up with inflation and population growth.
House Democrats are expected to release their budget proposal today, with a similar level of cuts. However, Kessler said the House budget will go easier on public schools and harder on higher education than the Senate budget.
"Both of them are going to be all-cuts budgets," Kessler said. "They're not going to be pretty."
After all the proposed budgets are released, lawmakers will work to hash out a compromise.
Democrats later this year are expected to propose sending voters a package of tax increases that could buy back some of the cuts, although Sen. Rodney Tom, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, expressed doubts it would pass.
"This is probably a budget we're going to have to live with," said Tom, D-Medina.
In a prepared statement, Brown said, "We're doing what none of us came to Olympia to do, and that is to introduce a budget that cuts more public services than any lawmakers in state history."
The current two-year budget, after some steps were taken to reduce spending, is about $33.2 billion.
Senate Democrats are proposing a $32.1 billion 2009-11 state budget. But they also would spend an additional $3 billion in federal stimulus money to prevent even deeper cuts.
Which raises a question: What's being cut if overall spending actually is increasing?
The answer: mostly proposed budget increases.
Simply put, it generally costs more each year to provide the same level of state services.
For example, when more children enroll in public schools, the state must pay for their basic education as required in the state Constitution. Washington currently is experiencing a spike in enrollment, in part, some officials think, because many financially strapped parents are pulling their children out of private school.
In fact, spending for public schools would increase under the proposed Senate budget — by around $900 million — but not nearly as much as it would have if the recession had not hit.
Republicans in the state House and Senate say the Democrats' budget doesn't cut enough.
"The Senate's solution to closing the state's nearly $9 billion budget shortfall is shortsighted, relies too much on one-time money, attempts to bait the public into buying off on a tax increase, and sets us up for budget shortfalls again in the near future," Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said in a prepared statement.
"It seems Senate budget writers still don't get it. While Washington families are making do with less, state government is going to get more," said Alexander, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee.
And while Republicans are calling for deeper cuts, interest groups affected by the budget cuts are pushing for the opposite.
"While this is the biggest economic challenge we've faced, it's one we can solve — but it calls for bold action and leadership," Maya Baxter, director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network, said in a statement. "We must come up with a reasonable budget solution, one that looks at all of our options, including raising revenue."
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Seattle Times reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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