Partial state budget fix avoids tough decisions, local lawmakers say

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

Updated: December 12, 2011, 7:05 PM

 

Local lawmakers expressed disappointment over a bipartisan budget proposal unveiled Monday that goes just a quarter of the way in making up the state’s $2 billion revenue shortfall.

The proposal offsets about $479.7 million of the shortfall through a mix of cuts, delayed spending and fund transfers.

The plan postpones many of the most difficult cuts until the regular session, which begins Jan. 9.

“We pretty much got general agreement on how we were going to move from both (legislative) bodies,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. “There are no tough decisions here.”

Among the tough decisions that remain unmade is a Democratic proposal to raise more revenue by increasing the sales tax by half of a penny.

“Virtually all of the hard questions remain unanswered,” said state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, who supports the sale tax increase.

Highlights of the proposal include changing the schedule for school bus replacements from October to August to achieve a one-time savings of nearly $50 million, Zarelli said. The plan recoups about $83 million of unspent budgeted dollars from last year and raises $51 million by selling unclaimed securities and transferring proceeds to the state’s general fund.

Unclaimed securities, including stocks, bonds and other property, are currently held for three years before being sold. Beneficiaries’ ability to later claim the property, if it hadn’t already been sold, or the proceeds of the sale would not be affected.

About $33 million would be trimmed through administrative staff and function cuts, Zarelli said. About $106 million would be transferred to the general fund from other state accounts.

The plan also would postpone implementation of new rules for involuntary commitment of individuals with mental illness. Delaying the rules allows the state to put off spending $33.7 million to build capacity for the 100 beds, which would be needed to accommodate the additional patients that would be brought into the system as a result of the rule changes.

The proposal, which is identical in the House and Senate, id expected to pass by the end of the week, said Sen. Ed. Murray, D-Seattle.

“We don’t have the votes for an all-cuts budget or a revenue package,” Murray said. “Half a billion in still fairly significant. We know we needed to make early choices. It was just a matter of getting members to agree to these things.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed additional cuts that include shortening the school year, curtailing levy equalization dollars for rural and low-income school districts and dropping thousands of low-income people from long-term care and health programs. She has proposed staving off some of the cuts to low-income seniors and people with disabilities by raising the sales tax by half of a penny. Lawmakers, however, are not expected to consider that proposal until the regular session.

If approved, the tax measure could be sent to voters between March and May, Murray said.

Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, berated the bipartisan proposal as a lack of effort on the part of the majority of lawmakers.

“Frankly, I think the proposal is a slap in the face of the people who sent us here to get the job done,” Rivers said. “We got 25 percent of the job done, and that’s just unacceptable. … It is a lot of Band-Aid measures and moving money around. That’s not what people were expecting when we came up here.”

Talk around the statehouse suggests that the Legislature will adjourn once the partial budget plan is approved, Pridemore said.

By approving a partial budget measure, more options are off the table for the regular session’s negotiations, making it more difficult to strike a bargain, he said.

He said given the Legislature’s lack of determination during the special session, he is doubtful about the prospects of a full budget deal by the end of the regular session.

“At the rate we’re going, I’m starting to think we’ll need a special session in March,” Pridemore said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; paris.achen@columbian.com.