Lawmakers wrap up session, chip away at deficit

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Updated: December 14, 2011, 6:15 PM

 

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers wrapped up their special session work Wednesday, chipping away at the state’s $1.4 billion shortfall even though Gov. Chris Gregoire had called for them to cut deeper.

The Legislature adjourned shortly after the Senate approved the new budget plan by a 42-6 vote. Gregoire had called for $2 billion in changes and a fully revamped budget by Christmas, but lawmakers settled on a plan that provides a $480 million fix through a combination of cuts, transfers and delayed payments.

Budget negotiators said it was impossible to get full consensus on a plan during a session that would last a maximum of 30 days.

“We did the best we can in a very short period of time to craft something that we can get agreement on,” Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said.

Democratic Sen. Ed Murray said the pact provides a down payment on the problem and will allow lawmakers to deal more quickly with the spending plan in the new year. He said he was willing to take any blame from those who might argue that the Legislature didn’t do enough.

“We got some important things accomplished,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “We haven’t solved the whole problem. The more difficult decisions are still ahead of us.”

In her budget plan, Gregoire proposed a shortened school year, the elimination of some social services programs and the early release of prisoners. She also wants voters to approve a temporary sales tax increase to offset some cuts.

The plan approved by lawmakers includes savings of $50 million by delaying school bus payments by several months, which Murray said could cause financial hardship for some districts. Another part will delay new rules for mental health assessments, which were expected to increase reliance on psychiatric care, saving about $23 million.

State agencies face a variety of cuts, including a 10 percent reduction in funding for administration at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Department of Ecology will lose staff positions that will total savings of $2.6 million.

Lawmakers got an $83 million boost from money that agencies didn’t spend last year, and they are raising another $50 million by transferring unclaimed securities to the state’s general fund.

Businesses that hold unclaimed investments or property currently hold it for three years before sending it to the state. The state usually holds it for another three years but will now transfer it to the general fund while still allowing people to claim it.