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Lawmakers reach deal on state budget cuts

House and Senate negotiators have settled differences on cuts, but passage of the budget may not come easy.

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By Jerry Cornfield
Herald Writer
OLYMPIA -- House and Senate leaders reached agreement Wednesday on a state budget expected to slash $4 billion in spending on schools, colleges and medical care and cause thousands of state workers and teachers to lose their jobs.
Democratic budget writers declined to discuss details Wednesday until they could brief their colleagues on its highlights and see the deal written into legislation.
They said the bill is due out today and a vote in the House will likely be on Friday.
That's as much as Republicans knew Wednesday night.
"The chair of the Ways and Means committee tells me we'll see the first whites of the eyes of the budget tomorrow," said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, the ranking GOP member of the House budget panel.
No one in the Legislature or the public should be too surprised at its content because the volume of cuts is the same as the initial House and Senate budget proposals released nearly a month ago.
Since then, the two sides have labored to settle differences in where to reduce spending in elementary and secondary schools, higher education, health care and social services. Education funding was the last part of the deal to be brokered.
"They are tough cuts," Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said of the final outcome. "Everybody in Washington state will be affected.
"If you have a child in school, you will see it. As much as we tried to minimize the cuts to higher education, in trying to fill a $4 billion hole, there is going to be substantial cuts in great programs," he said.
Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said she expects the public will "be disappointed when they see everything together."
She said she succeeded in protecting the House priorities of funding public schools, colleges and a safety net of social services.
"I can say that everything took cuts but our priorities are still intact," she said.
The deal concluded days of long meetings, arduous negotiations and seemingly endless exchanges of figures on how to erase a projected $9.3 billion shortfall through mid-2011.
Lawmakers are expected to vote on one bill covering spending through the rest of this budget, which ends June 30, and all of the next, which runs through June 30, 2011.
Based on what the House and the Senate drafted in March, they will use federal stimulus dollars, reserves and transfers from the capital budget and other accounts to put a nearly $5 billion plug in the gap. The rest is to be made up with nearly $4 billion in cuts.
Expect up to $500 million in savings by not making a payment into the state pension system. Not granting pay hikes to teachers and state employees will cut out several hundred million dollars in spending. Lawmakers plan to curb a large portion of funding for Initiative 728, which pays for smaller class sizes, though how much was not known Wednesday.
Tuition hikes will be part of the final deal, as will cuts to the state subsidized Basic Health Plan and a program providing monthly stipends and medical coverage to poor adults who are unable to work because of a disabling condition.
Passage won't come easy.
Democrats hold large enough majorities in each chamber to approve the budget without Republican votes -- which is likely to be the case.
But there are a number of Democrats in both chambers so disheartened by the breadth and depth of cuts that they may vote against the budget.
It's been particularly noticeable in the House, where the Democrats hold 62 of the 98 seats. Bills that are required to implement the budget, such as allowing tuition hikes and suspending funding for the class-size-reduction initiative, passed with the bare minimum of 50 votes.
In the Senate, where Democrats hold a 31-18 edge, the budget has proven less contentious within the caucus.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623,
Story tags » JobsCollegesLegislatureOlympia

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