Senate budget cuts social services, boosts education

Plan rejects Inslee's revenue proposals



Senate's transportation budget doesn't include state's $450 million share for Columbia River Crossing project.

Senate’s transportation budget doesn’t include state’s $450 million share for Columbia River Crossing project.

The state Senate on Wednesday unveiled a budget proposal that focuses on a series of spending cuts and fund transfers as lawmakers work toward balancing a projected budget deficit of more than $1.2 billion and complying with a court-ordered requirement to spend more on the state’s basic education system.

The budget proposal doesn’t seek to close tax exemptions or extend or make permanent temporary tax increases, as proposed in the budget put forth by Gov. Jay Inslee last week. It does extend a fee on hospital beds, phasing it out over a six-year period.

Inslee’s operating budget plan also repealed the

sales tax break out-of-state shoppers receive in Washington state; business leaders from Southwest Washington are big proponents of that tax exemption because it helps Vancouver businesses compete with those in sales-tax-free Oregon. The Senate proposal doesn’t scrap that nonresidential sales tax exemption.

“We live within our means,” Republican Sen. Andy Hill, the chamber’s top budget writer, said in a meeting with reporters earlier in the day. “We essentially prioritized the budget toward education.”

The budget writers said they identified more than $1 billion in savings, including $65 million in government efficiencies that state agencies will have to implement, $127 million in savings by moving thousands of low-income government workers into federally subsidized health care and millions more saved by delaying the opening of a prison unit.

Perhaps the most contentious cuts will come in social services. One would eliminate a program that provides cash aid to blind, disabled or older people who are typically waiting for approval of federal benefits. It would save the state $40 million. Hill said lawmakers assume that nonprofits will help the people who would typically get state benefits.

Michael Piper, executive director of the Arc Southwest Washington, said there is no way nonprofits can step up to fill a $40 million void in services.

“Many nonprofit organizations, just like households in Washington, have suffered through the recent economic downturn,” said Piper, former director of Clark County’s community services department. “There’s no way we could do that right now,and that’s true for every other social service as well. … Fundraising is more difficult now than ever before.”

The Arc Southwest Washington provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Piper said he was pleased that the Senate’s proposed budget includes money for a program that helps the developmentally delayed transition to adulthood.

In the Senate budget plan, lawmakers would also take out $180 million from a child care program for the working poor — a cut that Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter called “cruel.” Inslee called the spending plan “deeply flawed.”

“The Senate proposal to address our basic education obligations is funded in large part through cuts to vital services for children, families and vulnerable adults — exactly what I have said we must not do,” Inslee said.

Democratic Sen. Sharon Nelson said there are elements in the budget that lawmakers will probably reconsider and amend in the coming weeks as the public gives feedback on the plans.

Democratic budget leaders said revenue options will be examined to help prevent some of the cuts. Hill was noncommittal on that specific issue but said his caucus was flexible.

The budget proposal also repeals the voter-approved cost-of-living raises for teachers, redirecting the assumed $320 million to basic education. It also redirects money from other accounts, such as the construction budget.

Compared to the current budget, the spending plan for the coming two years adds $1.5 billion to K-12 education, including $1 billion directly toward satisfying last year’s Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to properly fund education. The overall amount proposed Wednesday includes more than $240 million on a learning assistance program targeted at high-poverty schools and $41 million to phase in expansion of full-day kindergarten.

The Senate also moves forward with Medicaid expansion, with the assumption that the move will save the state nearly $300 million.

In higher education, the Senate proposes to require a 3 percent reduction in tuition for in-state students. They say this will help manage the long-term financial concerns in the state’s prepaid tuition program.

State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said new revenue is needed to fully fund the state’s basic education system. He said he’s happy the budget accepts federal money to expand the Medicaid program, but other parts of the plan cause concerns.

“It relies on transferring huge amounts of money from the capital (construction) budget, shaky assumptions on unspent funds, and some speculative revenue assumptions,” Moeller said.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, praised the compromises seen in the budget proposal.

“As a fiscal conservative, I might have made different choices in some areas,” Benton said in a statement. “Still, as I predicted months ago, this puts the Senate in a position to counterbalance the House of Representatives and governor’s office, meaning the final budget that emerges this year should lean more to the conservative side than it would have otherwise.”

Republicans control the Senate with the help of two Democrats, known as the Majority Coalition Caucus. Hill said that he, Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove, Nelson and Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner met for weeks during the budget-writing process.

“When you’re sitting in a room with two Democrats and two Republicans, what we went through was a very thorough and meticulous and thoughtful process,” Hill said. “We looked at where we could capture savings, where we could control spending.”

Hargrove praised the process but stopped short of calling the proposal a bipartisan budget. He noted that while Democrats were involved in discussions, and some of their ideas were accepted, ultimately they’re not the ones in charge.

“I consider the process a bipartisan process, the most transparent bipartisan process that’s ever happened,” he said. As for the final budget: “You’ll know if it’s bipartisan if you see the votes on the floor.”

The Democratic-controlled House is expected to release its budget proposal next week.

Lawmakers are nearing the end of a 105-day legislative session, which is set to conclude April 28.

Columbian reporter Stevie Mathieu and Lucas Wiseman of Murrow News Service contributed to this report.