Washington state budget cuts hit education, health care

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by DREW MIKKELSEN / KING 5 News and Associated Press

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KING5.com

Posted on December 11, 2010 at 2:52 PM

Updated Saturday, Dec 11 at 9:08 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Saturday’s special session may have been short, but no one is calling it sweet. Lawmakers wrapped up their emergency special session by passing budget cuts nearing $600 million.

“It’s a very difficult vote,” said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Murray called the mood of the special session “solemn” because of the deep cuts to health care and education.

Representative Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said the cuts were long overdue.

“Had we done this a lot longer ago, when we should have, then there probably wouldn’t be any pain at all,” said Orcutt.

Lawmakers assembled Saturday for an emergency special session to take a bite out of the state's $1.1 billion budget deficit, a preview of heavy budget-balancing work that lies ahead in January.

The first major element of the Legislature's budget savings was approved by House members on an 86-6 vote Saturday afternoon. Further votes lay ahead for the bipartisan package, which will reduce the deficit by about $590 million.

Spending cuts and other steps identified by Gov. Chris Gregoire could add about $110 million to the deficit-reduction plan. The rest of the shortfall, which applies to state spending through June, will have to be addressed in Gregoire's proposed supplemental budget.

State officials face even larger deficit problems in the next two-year budget, which covers spending from mid-2011 to mid-2013. The shortfall in that nearly $33 billion budget is estimated at about $4.6 billion.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said Saturday's actions were just first steps "in managing our way out of this recession."

"We will have to re-examine new ways for the government to serve the needs of the people of Washington," Hunter said. "This recession is hard on everyone -- our families, our businesses and our state. People have elected us to do the best job we can do. It isn't easy."

Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said lawmakers need to continue to discuss how to budget for the future.

"We can no longer can do the things that we've been doing in the past," she said. "We will have to reset, reform and reshape what we do."

The special session's budget plan combines spending reductions with raids of off-budget accounts and a smaller amount of increased revenue found by ratcheting up tax-collection efforts.

Straight-ahead tax increases were off the table following the November election, which saw voters reject several new taxes and place renewed restrictions on the Legislature's ability to raise taxes without a statewide vote.

About a dozen protesters stood in the rain to greet lawmakers heading to committee hearings. They carried signs encouraging higher taxes on the rich and sang Christmas-carol protest songs, including a "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" parody aimed at "Gregoire the budget cutter."

"We're going to see really draconian cuts. I wanted to make sure people in poverty have a strong voice here at the Capitol," said Jean Squires, a 29-year-old student at The Evergreen State College who was holding a sign that read "Poverty is immoral."

Gina Petry, who was working with an anti-budget cut campaign called Sisters Organized for Survival, said that even people who don't currently use the services at risk should be worried about the cuts.

"All it takes is one layoff or one accident, and they can be in a position to need these services," she said.

Large dollar amounts identified in the combined governor's and Legislature's deficit-cutting plans were tied to health programs and other human services. Estimates released by Gregoire's office showed reductions in that broad category totaling some $200 million, including cuts to the Basic Health Plan and cash grants through the Disability Lifeline program.

Lawmakers also planned to wring about $100 million in savings from K-12 and higher education, including suspension of a payment meant to reduce K-4 class sizes. About $50 million in savings would come from the Department of Corrections, including previously announced plans to close the prison on McNeil Island in Pierce County.

Roughly $210 million would come from diverting federal aid that was intended to boost public education employment. About $50 million more would come from various unspecified fund transfers.

The state Department of Revenue also was expected to contribute about $45 million, including plans for a tax amnesty program that would encourage settlement of delinquent accounts.

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