Local View: Partisan revolt results in bipartisan budget talks

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As Thomas Jefferson wrote 225 years ago, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Whether the actions leading to the state Senate’s passage of an operating budget March 3 amounted to a rebellion or a “partisan revolution” (“Partisan chaos in Olympia” was the headline on The Columbian’s March 6 editorial) or merely a sensible response to a difficult situation is a matter of perspective. Either way, the result has been, to borrow Jefferson’s words, a good thing.

With six days left in the Legislature’s 60-day regular session, the Senate majority party clearly was struggling to find enough votes for its plan to close state government’s $1.1 billion budget gap. No action meant no negotiating with the House of Representatives, which had endorsed a different approach two days earlier, unless an alternative presented itself.

Those of us in the minority had just such an alternative that a few reform-minded Democrats also found appealing. They joined us to form a 25-senator philosophical majority, and using a familiar Senate rule designed for just this sort of situation, we brought the governor’s proposed budget forward. After the Republican-Democrat coalition amended that plan and adopted three supporting policy measures, the Senate had its second bipartisan budget in two years and could begin negotiating with the House.

The House majority party had no doubt expected to be negotiating a final budget with its partisan counterparts in the Senate, not with some bipartisan bunch of party-crashers. By midweek it was clear the Legislature would be pushed into a special session. While no one wanted that, it is what it is.

Differences between the Senate and House budgets aren’t difficult to spot. For instance, let’s look at what they do about providing for K-12 education, which is supposed to be state government’s highest priority. The House budget delays $404 million in payments to public school districts, including levy equalization money. The Senate budget doesn’t, meaning it provides $372 million more in this two-year budget cycle. Based on figures from the state education office and compared to what’s in the bipartisan budget the Legislature adopted last year, the Senate budget is expected to increase direct allocations to school districts by $7.8 million, while the House budget would decrease those allocations by $1.8 million.

With a four-year university campus and a pair of two-year colleges serving our corner of the state, it’s worth noting the House budget drops higher-education funding by $59 million, including cuts to student financial aid. The Senate budget contains half that level of reductions, tying them to an unanticipated increase in non-resident tuition payments, and doesn’t threaten financial aid.

When negotiating the bipartisan Senate budget last year, I worked to shield our state’s most-vulnerable populations from significant service reductions; the new Senate budget -- which also fully funds the Basic Health Plan for the working poor -- follows suit. It does trim support for long-term care, developmentally-disabled services and mental health by $7 million. However, the budget adopted by the House cuts nearly six times as deep in those areas, with $53 million less funding. Also, the Senate budget doesn’t increase the tax on nursing home beds, unlike the House budget.

The Senate budget doesn’t outspend the level of revenue anticipated for this budget cycle or for the two years after that. It also leaves a respectable amount, about $500 million, in reserve. Those factors would give it a decent chance of surviving more flat or negative revenue forecasts.

Neither the Senate nor the House budget will be the final plan. That said, our bipartisan coalition forced the budget negotiations with the House to begin closer to the middle instead of a good distance left of center. Just as important, we showed the budget gap can be closed in a responsible way, without guaranteeing the next Legislature will have another financial crisis on its hands. That sort of sustainability needs to carry through into the final budget, whenever it is adopted.

Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, is Republican leader on the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.