House passes $23 billion budget - Governor praises plan as 'responsible'

Richard Roesler
Spokesman Review Staff writer


OLYMPIA, WA_ A $23-billion, Republican-leaning state budget cleared its final legislative hurdle Thursday, passing the House of Representatives and heading to Gov. Gary Locke's desk for his signature.

Locke, who praised the two-year spending plan as a "responsible" move "well-suited to difficult times," is expected to sign it into law. Lawmakers spent months trying to figure out how to overcome a $2.5 billion budget shortfall. In the end, most of it came from cuts to state-funded programs.

Republicans are particularly pleased with the budget, which increases the liquor tax to raise $14million but avoids any general tax increases.

"Overall, I think we've done well," said House Minority Leader Cathy McMorris, R-Colville. "This was not the time to be raising taxes. The main priority was to get the economy moving."

"We had to demonstrate that we could be like private business and cut back," said Rep. Don Cox, R-Colfax.

Many Democrats, particularly liberals, were disappointed with the budget. Among their objections: It cuts state jobs, gives most teachers and state workers no cost-of-living increase for the next two years and reduces medical and dental care for the poor. Many low-income families whose children get medical care through Medicaid now will have to pay monthly premiums.

"This is not what we wanted," said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane. "Not anywhere close.

"State workers in general haven't had a raise now for three years, not even a cost-of-living increase. Not even half a cost-of-living increase. That bothers me."

Other Democrats defended the budget, saying it's the best the state can do during an economic slump.

"Compromise is an honorable concept," said Rep. Jeff Gombosky, D-Spokane. He said Democrats can be proud -- they fought successfully against deeper cuts to the state's health insurance plan for the poor, for example.

"Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said.

House lawmakers got their first complete look at the budget only 24 hours earlier, when negotiators called them into closed-door meetings to review the agreed-to plan.

"I think everyone in the Legislature would like to have some tweak made in it," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. Despite being one of the most powerful lawmakers in Olympia, Chopp didn't get something he badly wanted: $98 million in pay and benefits for newly unionized home health aides. Instead, negotiators pared that to $32 million for pay, and no benefits.

Still, Chopp put on a good face Wednesday.

"It is a bipartisan budget," he said. "It's not a Republican budget, it's not a Democrat budget."

Republicans seemed most pleased, however.

"We got our big goal: no new taxes," said Rep. Brad Benson, R-Spokane. "If you start with a $2.5 billion deficit, I think this is a pretty damned good budget."


Legislature completes work on $23 billion operating budget


Olympia, WA - The state House of Representatives approved a two-year no-new-taxes budget Thursday afternoon, capping the arduous months-long process of plugging a $2.7 billion gap, the most serious shortfall in decades. Rep. Jim Buck, R-Joyce, supported the $23 billion proposal, which passed the House on a strong bipartisan vote of 67-30. The Senate approved the package 28-19 Wednesday night. The budget now heads to the governor, who supports the agreement and is expected to sign it. "Through disciplined budget-writing, leadership, and a willingness to fight hard to make government live within its means, we have accomplished what many people thought could not be done - bringing a spending plan together without raising taxes," said Buck, a member of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee. "Just as important, we kept faith with the voters who told us to cinch in and tackle the state's financial problems with responsibility and restraint, just as individuals, families and businesses are doing."

Buck noted that in light of severe spending constraints the budget still focuses limited resources on the most pressing priorities, including providing funding for government programs and services that vulnerable citizens depend on most. "We were able to maintain health coverage for low-income children and avoid deep reductions in services for the developmentally disabled and troubled youth," he said. "We also protected health-care coverage for 100,000 low-income citizens on the Basic Health Plan, and closed a $600 million deficit in the Health Services Account." To help retain and attract new teachers, the budget provides a pay increase for teachers in their first seven years. By the second year of the budget, beginning teachers would earn more than $30,000 a year. The budget also lifts I-728 funding to $254 per pupil.

The state's $400 million windfall from the federal tax-relief bill will be kept in reserve as a hedge against an expected revenue downturn later this year.

"There are parts of this agreement that everyone dislikes, but we set priorities and made tough and painful decisions, never losing sight of the fact that taxpayers are hurting too," Buck said. "We did the very best we could with the resources we had. There are sacrifices and disappointments throughout this proposal, but living within our means was an imperative. With a jobless rate that's among the highest in the country and businesses laying off employees, raising taxes would put more people out of work and further delay economic recovery.

"We believe this budget will send a strong message that Washington is a good place to do business, and further the goal of stabilizing and strengthening the state's economy," he concluded.


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