House budget proposal has clear winners and losers

Local legislators weigh in on pros, cons of plan

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Local school officials relieved House budget plan spares subsidies

The long-awaited House Operating Budget for 2011-13 released Monday was a mixed bag, with clear winners and losers.

State parks would begin the transition from taxpayer support to user-based funding, with $20 million to make the shift to annual $30 passes over the next two years.

The popular Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, slated to be zeroed out under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget, would get $50 million in state-backed bonds to continue its work of helping local governments buy land for recreation and wildlife habitat.

College students would see some financial aid options evaporate even as university tuition jumps by another 11 to 13 percent.

Advocates for children thanked the House Ways and Means Committee at a Monday afternoon hearing for sparing programs that support health care, food assistance, foster care and other child welfare programs.

Home health care workers would see both positions and pay disappear.

The union that represents many home health care workersaccused the House of “turning traditional Democratic principles on their head,” and mental health workers vowed to stage a massive demonstration Thursday in Olympia.

“Under the proposed budget, low-wage home care workers, who make about $10 an hour caring for vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities in their own homes, take deeper cuts to their income and health benefits than top (Department of Social and Health Services) brass who make more than $100,000 a year,” Service Employees International Union 775 said in a statement.

Those workers face a 10 percent reduction in both hours and income, SEIU said, and about 6,000 will lose their health coverage entirely.

Medicaid, higher ed

The Washington State Hospital Association said the budget would result in a $250 million cut to hospital Medicaid reimbursement ratesand also cut $75 million in payments for emergency room visits.

“Ultimately, the burden of these cuts would fall on poor children, seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income workers,” said hospital association president Leo Greenawalt.

Higher education, one of the few big-money discretionary areas in the state budget, faces $482 million in cuts that would be partially offset by tuition increases for the third year in a row.

However, Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said he hopes to announce a program to ease the pain for college students later this week.

“We are in the midst of negotiations with several of Washington’s premier companies who have come forward and said they would like to help with the tuition crisis,” Probst said. He said he hopes to introduce a bill by week’s end to implement what he called “a conditional scholarship program.”

“This is a state that does its best not to turn its back on our neighbors when our neighbors are in need,” Probst added. “But it’s going to be exceptionally difficult for families across the state. The revenues simply don’t match the need.”

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means, said he was pleased that school levy equalization was protected in the budget, “as it is so critical for most all of our schools in Clark and Cowlitz county.

“However, we need a budget which focuses on providing for those who need services the most; reducing the size of government; getting Washington working again; and which recognizes our citizens have no more money to give — not in taxes, nor in fees,” he added.

Orcutt noted that of nearly 100,000 state employee positions, the House budget would eliminate only 1,600, and said he sees little in the budget that would reform agencies or reduce upper-level management.

He said he was concerned as well about the budget’s continued reliance on fund transfers to shore up the operating budget, such as a proposal to tap the Public Works Trust Fund, which local governments rely on to pay for water, sewer and other infrastructure projects.

Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means, was disappointed that House Democrats didn’t propose fundamental changes in the way agencies operate and shied away from cutting some programs altogether.

“What they do is turn the spigot off in a number of areas, but they keep things alive. Nothing changes statutorily,” he said.

Zarelli also had problems with House budget writers’ decision to include in the budget $300 million in revenue from a prospective contract with a private company that would take over wholesale distribution of liquor to state liquor stores.

“Down the road, it might drive efficiency,” he said. But he favors taking more time to craft a contract and get it reviewed by the state budget office. “They are trying to strike a deal, but they may undersell what we could get out of it,” he said.

Moeller relieved

Rep Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said he was relieved that the House preserved Basic Health, the program that provides state-subsidized health coverage for the poor, and Disability Lifeline vouchers, which would cover housing and health care for disabled, jobless adults. “They are part of our safety net,” he said.

“This budget funds kids,” he added. “It funds our educational mandate, our paramount duty, and also tries to fund higher education. It adds $130 million to state needs grants to try to offset some of those tuition hikes.”

There was bad, if not unexpected, news for Clark College: No money in the House Capital Budget for construction of a planned $36 million STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classroom building on its main Vancouver campus. That will push the much-desired project back at least two years, and perhaps more, said college President Bob Knight.

But Moeller, who joined the Capital Budget Committee after Rep. Jim Jacks, D-Vancouver, a member of the committee, resigned from the Legislature on March 25, said Clark County did win funding for several projects.

Those include:

• $10 million to Ridgefield for a regional trunk line and pump station.

• $9.575 million to Clark Public Utilities for improvement to the utility’s water system.

• $996,000 to Washougal for pump station improvements.

• $728,000 to YMCA of the Columbia- Willamette.

n$610,000 to Vancouver to replace building roofs on Officers Row;

• $606,000 to Washougal for improvements to the W Street Water System.

• $581,000 to Share House.

• $500,000 to Vancouver for Waterfront Park pre-construction costs.

• $151,000 to the Department of Natural Resources for ongoing restoration of the Washougal Oaks Natural Area.

• $243,000 to Washougal for west-side well-field disinfection improvements;.

• $41,012 to Vancouver for development of East Minnehaha Neighborhood Park.