With three major deals struck in as many days, exhausted state lawmakers appear to have cleared the roadblocks to wrapping up their work by the end of the special legislative session Wednesday.
OLYMPIA — With three major deals struck in as many days, exhausted state lawmakers appear to have cleared the roadblocks to wrapping up their work by the end of the special legislative session Wednesday.
Legislators released details of a state budget on Tuesday that cuts teacher and state-worker pay, slashes higher education spending, and scales back social-service and health programs to close a $5.1 billion budget shortfall.
The House passed the measure Tuesday night. It now goes to the Senate.
Lawmakers also announced a deal on contentious legislation to reduce state spending on debt — an issue that threatened to unravel the special session earlier this week.
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The budget and debt deal, along with a third agreement approved Monday that makes changes to the workers’ compensation system, set the stage for lawmakers to finish Wednesday.
The deals were struck after marathon sessions that sometimes lasted through the night. Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, left debt negotiations at 5 a.m. only to grab a couple hours sleep on a couch before people arriving in the morning woke him up.
“You go on adrenaline,” Dunshee said, noting there were no catered dinners. “You sort of forage around the building looking for something. You find some old Girl Scout cookies or granola bars.”
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he can tell lawmakers are ready to go home. “People are flipping out over different things … People are exhausted,” he said. “I’m so tired it kind of scares me.”
The biggest job for the Legislature — getting a budget deal — in some ways appeared to go the smoothest.
Although the budget was draining to write, legislative leaders heaped praise on each other for bipartisan cooperation. For the first time anybody can recall, Senate Democrats jointly worked on the budget with minority Republicans.
“We all sat together through thick and thin and actually worked out our differences when we had them and ultimately ended up making decisions together,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
In reality, they had little choice because several conservative Democrats demanded a bipartisan budget. That meant Democrats needed GOP support to get the $32 billion, two-year plan passed.
The proposed budget makes more than $4 billion in cuts to help close a roughly $5 billion budget shortfall. It also would use $459 million in one-time transfers of money from accounts outside the general fund. And it would leave about $723 million in reserves in case the economy stumbles and tax collections drop below projections.
While the budget avoided tax increases, there are some narrowly tailored fee increases. Starting July 1, visitors to state parks would have to buy a $30 annual pass — or a $10 daily permit — allowing access to all state-managed recreational lands. Some hunting and fishing licenses will also cost more.
For the most part, the final budget is very similar to previous proposals by the state House and Senate. But the two chambers were at odds until recently on how to cut teacher pay.
Under the new agreement, pay for K-12 teachers would be cut 1.9 percent and for school administrative staff by 3 percent over the next two years, saving $179 million. State workers also will see a 3 percent pay cut, through unpaid time off, saving $177 million.
Other cuts to K-12 education include suspending two initiatives dealing with teacher pay and class sizes worth $1.2 billion. An additional $215 million is saved by eliminating other money to reduce K-4 class sizes.
“We knew it was coming. It’s still an ugly budget,” said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association.
“The kids in our classroom will not have the same quality of education next fall that they had three years ago. This budget is going to hurt kids, there’s no way around it,” she said.
Higher education will be hit with $535 million in cuts to academic services and $87 million in salary reductions.
To make up for the lowered state support, state colleges and universities will be allowed to raise tuition substantially. The Legislature granted the state’s four-year universities the authority to raise tuition by 16 percent a year — or even more if they set aside some of the money for financial aid for lower and middle-income families.
“It’s really important to remind people that this is an unprecedented reduction in state funding for higher education,” said Randy Hodgins, University of Washington vice president of external affairs. The cuts amount to a 50 percent reduction in state funding for higher education since 2009, he said.
The UW’s Board of Regents will meet June 9 to begin figuring out how much to raise tuition.
Tuition at the state’s technical and community colleges would increase by 12 percent a year. Those schools do not have the option to raise their tuition beyond that amount.
The budget also increases the State Need Grant, the state’s largest financial-aid program for low-income students, to help students pay for the tuition hikes.
The plan saves $344 million by eliminating automatic cost-of-living increases for retired workers in the state’s older, closed Plan 1 pensions.
Safety net squeezed
Lawmakers are also making deep cuts to the social safety net that provides health care, housing and food assistance to the poor and disabled.
The budget eliminates monthly cash grants under the Disability Lifeline program for people unable to work due to mental illness, blindness or other chronic conditions. The grants, which had already been cut from about $339 to $197 a month this year, will now disappear.
Instead, the state will focus on paying for “essential needs” such as housing for people at risk of becoming homeless. Those changes will save an estimated $116 million.
Despite the cuts, the budget does not eliminate the program entirely, as Gov. Chris Gregoire had proposed.
Also saved from elimination is the Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized health insurance for the poor. About 37,000 people per month will remain in the program next year, but new enrollments will be frozen. That will save the state an estimated $130 million.
Adult dental care, grants to community health clinics and health care for poor, pregnant women also face deep reductions.
Social-services advocates said the cuts will hurt those least able to cope with them — predicting the result would be more homelessness and misery for the poor.
“You are talking about the most disenfranchised and oftentimes ill people in our society,” said the Rev. Rick Reynolds, executive director of Operation Nightwatch, a homeless-services agency in Seattle.
“We’re already past the point of being able to respond to everybody who wants to just be able to get inside for the night,” he said.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org