Senate Democrats' spending plan receives praise, criticism

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Senate Democrats unveil Wash. budget proposal

Southwest Washington educators and health care officials on Tuesday greeted the latest budget proposal by Senate Democrats a little more warmly than they received the House Democrats’ version, but the plan still prompted plenty of criticism.

“Overall, we’re pretty pleased with it,” said Steve Olsen, chief fiscal officer of Vancouver Public Schools. But, he added, “the truth will be when the consensus budget comes out.”

Clark County school districts fare slightly better in the state Senate budget, Olsen said, because the Senate budget doesn’t delay levy equalization payments, which help even the playing field for districts with comparatively lower property values. The Senate Democrats’ budget also reduces the size of kindergarten through third-grade classes at low-income schools, Olsen said.

Higher education officials also were pleased with the Senate proposal. The House version unveiled last week would take about $65 million out of higher education, although some of it is added back in for specific programs.

If approved, the supplemental operating budget proposed by Senate Democrats on Tuesday would be the first time since 2007 that Washington State University dodged appropriations cuts, according to a WSU news release. WSU, which has a branch campus in Vancouver, would see $9.3 million slashed from its budget under the House Democrats’ proposal a cut that’s omitted in the Senate version.

The Senate version also avoids cuts to work-study programs and the State Need Grant program, according to WSU.

But the Senate Democrats’ proposed operating budget includes a blow to local governments by taking about $71 million in local tax revenue from the newly enacted private-sector retail sales of liquor.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said the loss of shared liquor revenues would mean more cuts in a city that’s slashed more than $30 million from its budget in the past few years.

“For us at the city, it’s just another hit,” he said. “It’s going to mean another reduction in levels of service, whether it’s in the number of police we have, of firefighters we have, in paving that is completed, or the availability of customer service representatives at City Hall the list goes on and on.”

In 2010, led by the mayor, the city council passed a resolution opposing two liquor privatization bills that would have cost Vancouver between $1.2 million and $2 million a year. Those measures ultimately failed.

Leavitt said he was sure state representatives “are well aware” of the damage removing the shared money will do.

“This is a proposed budget, and now the negotiations begin and the conversation continues,” he said.

The House and Senate must come to an agreement on the 2011-2013 supplemental operating budget before it passes. The 60-day session is scheduled to end March 8.

Railroad money

State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, noted that the Senate Democrats’ budget doles out $500,000 for enhancements to the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Battle Ground.

“I think the Senate budget accomplishes the difficult task of balancing declining revenues with the need to provide core, essential services,” Pridemore said. “I’m particularly pleased that we were able to preserve chemical dependency treatment and funding for higher education, while minimizing negative cuts to public health and our obligations to city and county governments.”

The Sea Mar Community Health Center in Vancouver welcomes the Senate proposal, Sea Mar’s Regional Vice President Carrie Vanzant said. It provides protections for many health care programs for those in need, including Disability Lifeline, Apple Health for Kids, adult dental programs, maternity support services, interpreter services and adult pharmacy coverage for the roughly 48,000 people served each year in Clark County, she said.

“Without these programs, we would have a significant hit to the availability of services and staffing, as well as tools and resources that provide quality health care to the many people that come through our door,” Vanzant said. She added that those receiving this care “are some of the most vulnerable of our community members.”

Republican senators from Southwest Washington said that the Senate proposal is irresponsible and does not address the state’s long-term budget problems.

“Not only are ‘Olympia cuts’ and gimmicks back in a big way, it would make the gimmick that delays school funding a permanent fixture,” said state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. “It also goes incredibly light on spending reductions, which in turn means a reserve that is too weak to survive even a modest drop in revenue.”

Zarelli, a leading Republican when it comes to budget issues, suggested the state reform its retirement system for state workers, reduce its debt limit, repeal unfunded education mandates and amend the state constitution in regards to balancing budgets.

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said the budget proposed Tuesday is full of budget tricks that will leave the state with another budget crisis in the next biennium.

“My initial reaction is: Are you kidding me?” Benton said. “At what point are our representatives going to come to the realization that the government we have is like living in a house we can’t afford?”

This legislative session began with a budget challenge of nearly $1.5 billion. Last week’s moderately improved revenue forecast sliced $86 million off that expected deficit, and decreases in demands for state services shrank the budget problem by another $335 million.

In all, state lawmakers need to find a little more than $1 billion if they want to end up with the recommended $500 million in reserves.

Andrea Damewood of The Columbian contributed to this report.

Stevie Mathieu:360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics.