State budget deal relies on massive education cuts

Nearly all areas of state government touched

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Updated: May 24, 2011, 8:58 PM

 

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OLYMPIA — A tentative agreement to fill Washington state’s $5 billion budget shortfall relies largely on massive cuts to education, including reductions in teacher pay and dramatic increases in university tuition.

Negotiators announced the plan Tuesday in a somber news conference, saying they sought to make the painful reductions as responsibly as they could. With new taxes essentially off the table due to an initiative voters approved last year, the $32 billion plan for the next two years includes $4.6 billion in spending cutbacks.

“There were sacrifices made in every single part of services provided by state government,” said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Education suffered the most, accounting for roughly half of all cuts.

Teachers, who have already had salaries trimmed when lawmakers decreased paid training days, face another 1.9 percent decrease while other K-12 employees could get a 3 percent reduction. Those changes will save the state $179 million over the next two years and come even though the pay for legislators will remain steady.

Repeating savings from the last budget, the Legislature is looking to suspend voter-approved cost-of-living adjustments for education employees, which would save another $300 million. They’ve also barred any provisions to catch up on delayed adjustments in future years.

The biggest budget shift, totaling more than $1 billion, comes from suspending programs designed to keep class sizes low.

Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, said she was disappointed by the spending plan and argued that the state needs to identify a new source of revenue to sustain schools. She had feared such cuts after voters approved I-1053 in November, requiring the Legislature to have a two-thirds majority to pass tax increases.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, this budget hurts kids,” she said.

Higher education institutions also face a daunting future. Budget cuts of more than $500 million are offset by double-digit tuition increases in each of the next two years, compounding similar hikes in the past two years. By 2013, a student at the University of Washington — where tuition will go up 16 percent each year — will pay double the costs of tuition that students did five years ago.

Rates could go even higher: Lawmakers have also given institutions the power to set their own tuition.

Hours after unveiling the budget details, the state House approved it in a 54-42 vote. Many Republicans voted against the plan, with some saying the spending was still unsustainable in the long term and others saying the cuts to education were unacceptable.

“I believe it goes too far,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia. The bill now moves to the Senate, which was expected to take it up today.

Elsewhere in the budget, state employees face a 3 percent reduction through unpaid leave — a move that will save $177 million. Some retired teachers and state employees will no longer get automatic cost-of-living pension increases, saving $344 million.

Negotiators agreed to continue preventing new admissions to the state’s Basic Health Plan, saving $130 million. They want to limit the scope of the state’s Disability Lifeline program to save $115 million and propose a reduction of hospital payments by $110 million.

Despite a request from Gov. Chris Gregoire and others, legislators are protecting salaries for elected officials. A panel that sets those pay scales does not have the authority to lower compensation, so the Legislature would have to pass and voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to allow it.

Lawmakers are rushing to push the spending plan through their chambers by the end of today, when the special session comes to an end. Gregoire commended the Legislature for making the cuts.

The Senate on Tuesday approved a measure that will limit the state’s debt, a result of contentious negotiations on one of the last remaining issues in the special session.

A deal on the measure reached before the vote also releases the state’s construction budget, which had been held up by the debt limit debate. Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said Senate and House negotiators have agreed on a $2.8 billion construction budget, of which $1.1 billion will come from bonds and $1.7 billion from state cash.