The state Legislature raced through millions of dollars in budget cuts during a special session Saturday aimed at reducing the $1.1 billion shortfall in the current state budget.
By Andrew Garber
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Gov. Chris Gregoire
OLYMPIA — There were no throngs of protesters chanting on the Capitol steps Saturday. And no political meltdowns in the House or Senate as the Legislature raced through millions of dollars in budget cuts during a one-day special session.
The angry clashes often seen when state programs get axed were replaced with resignation that resistance was futile.
“It’s a done deal,” Nick Federici, a lobbyist with Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said while waiting outside the House chamber. “We can scream bloody murder, and it really isn’t going to change the outcome.”
Lawmakers finished their work with unusual speed. They started at 9 a.m. and by midafternoon had passed all the legislation on the table aimed at reducing a $1.1 billion shortfall in the current budget, which runs through June.
Actions taken by the Legislature and governor are expected to trim the shortfall by about $700 million.
The cuts will hit higher education, K-12 schools, social services, state prisons and other programs.
The debates on the budget bills Saturday were short, and legislation making the biggest cuts passed with large bipartisan majorities. The House voted 86 to 6, and the Senate 30 to 9, on the key budget measure, House Bill 3225.
“I’m very proud of what the Legislature was able to do today and how they did it. I think it’s historic, the bipartisan way in which they stood up to the most challenging time in 80 years,” Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire said shortly after the Legislature adjourned. “I’m hoping they have built up a momentum that candidly shows the rest of the country how to get it done.”
Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, didn’t sound as confident when interviewed after the last Senate vote.
“This is an aberration,” he said of how smoothly lawmakers completed their work Saturday. “These were decisions that had to be made because of the shortness of time, and when we get into regular session (in January) I would not see this amicable love ship forever.”
Not everyone was willing to vote for the cuts. There was opposition in both parties.
Departing Sen. Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland, voted against the reductions, arguing lawmakers should look to eliminate certain tax loopholes and giveaways to raise more money. Oemig lost to a Republican in the November election.
“Today, what this bill does, it’s going to cut welfare for kids, for families,” he said during the debate. “It’s going to cut school funding. And it’s not asking anyone else to sacrifice. That’s just not right.”
Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, also was a no vote, saying in a statement the Legislature did not go far enough. “The budget reductions taken will, at best, only marginally begin to help the state’s fiscal situation. … This is a very poor start, considering the even larger budget deficits the state will be facing in January.”
Most lawmakers said the cuts are just the beginning, noting tax collections continue to fall below expectations due to the ongoing economic slowdown.
State officials are projecting at least a $4.6 billion budget gap in the next two-year budget, which is expected to result in even steeper cuts when the Legislature meets again next month.
“This is probably the easiest of all the decisions we’re going to have to make as we move into January,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Zarelli voted for the cuts.
That’s what has health-care, social-service and education advocates worried.
“There’s a real fear out there that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for a coalition of health-care and social-service advocates.
“The Legislature needs to take a balanced approach to this unprecedented situation,” he said. “What I’m suggesting is that they also take a look at reforming tax exemptions and closing some of these worst tax exemptions.”
Tax hikes not on table
Tax increases aren’t being considered. An initiative passed by voters last month requires a two-thirds vote of lawmakers or a vote of the public to raise taxes.
The complex agreement lawmakers approved Saturday was hammered out by Gregoire and the Democratic and Republican leadership earlier in the week.
The deal includes $208 million in federal education aid granted by Congress this year, plus a mix of cuts and raiding of accounts outside the general fund. Local school districts had hoped to use the federal money to help offset additional cuts expected in the next two-year budget.
Gregoire also is expected to make additional, across-the-board cuts in the current budget that don’t require legislative approval.
Lawmakers cut $51 million from universities and colleges, including $11 million from the University of Washington, $7 million from Washington State University and $2 million from Western Washington University.
The reductions come on top of earlier cuts made during the last budget approved by the Legislature.
“For the students probably in the winter quarter and spring quarter, we’ll cut back on class offerings more so than we have already,” said Randy Hodgins, UW’s vice president of external affairs. “We will make sections in large lecture classes bigger than they already are. They will not have as much access to TAs (teaching assistants), which is something they’re already complaining about. Advising, police services, equipment purchases … it’s more diminishment.”
The cuts also include $50 million from K-12 education, $48 million from the Department of Corrections and millions more from social-service programs.
Disability Lifeline, a temporary safety net for the disabled poor, is expected to reduce the cash grant for each recipient in the program from $339 a month to $258. And the state expects to save money on the Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized insurance for the working poor, by not filling slots as people leave the program.
The state Department of Revenue also is expected to bring in more than $40 million in additional revenue with various efforts, including a tax-amnesty program that would waive interest and penalties from Feb. 1 through May 31 of next year for companies that agree to pay their back taxes.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com
State budget cuts
State budget cuts approved by the Legislature on Saturday include:$50 million from public schools, including the elimination of funding to keep class sizes smaller in K-4 classrooms.
$51 million from higher education, including $11.4 million from the University of Washington, $7.5 million from Washington State University, $2 million from Western Washington University and $26.4 million from community and technical colleges.
$12.3 million from Disability Lifeline, a program that provides cash payments to the disabled poor. Monthly payments will drop from $339 to $258.
$27.7 million by reducing enrollment in the Basic Health Plan, a subsidized insurance program for the working poor. The state won’t fill slots as they come open.
$48.4 million from the Department of Corrections, including the closure of the McNeil Island Corrections Center.
Reducing payments to health-care centers that receive federal money.
Reducing emergency payments to families in need but not on welfare. One-time payments will drop from $1,250 to $1,000.
Eliminating nonemergency adult dental care for the poor.
$13.8 million by extending last year’s furloughs for state employees to include all Department of Social and Health Services employees, and requiring them to take two additional furlough days.
$17 million from natural-resources programs, including $5.8 million from the Department of Ecology.
A 6.2 percent across-the-board reduction in the governor’s office, the budget office, the Legislature, the judiciary and the offices of separately elected statewide officials.
Source: Washington State Senate Democrats,
Washington State Legislature
The week, Gov. Chris Gregoire will roll out her proposals to cut at least $4.6 billion from the next two-year budget, which runs through June 2013. She’s also expected to propose how to solve what remains of the shortfall in the current budget.
On Jan. 10, the Legislature will convene for a scheduled 105-day session to finish plugging the hole in the current budget and write a new two-year budget.