Washington state Senate OKs new budget plan
OLYMPIA — With just days left in an overtime legislative session, the state Senate on Saturday approved a budget plan similar to a proposal the chamber passed earlier this year during the regular session, but made some concessions on revenue if certain reform bills are passed.
The budget passed on a 25-23 vote before the Senate adjourned until Sunday, when several policy bills are expected to come up for votes.
The separate revenue plan proposed but not passed on Saturday includes a requirement that nonresidents apply for sales tax refunds instead of getting them automatically, and ends a tax break for residential phone services. The budget proposal doesn’t seek to close additional tax exemptions as the Democratic-controlled House did in its budget proposal passed earlier this week, which also eliminated the sales tax exemption on bottled water. The Senate plan also offers a fix to a recent ruling on the estate tax that could cost the state millions of dollars in refunds.
However, Sen. Andy Hill, a Republican from Redmond who is the key budget writer for the chamber, said that the revenue-related bills won’t pass off the Senate floor “until we get the reforms that we’ve been asking for.”
“I’m all for putting more money and new money into the system, but not put it into the broken system that exists now,” he told fellow lawmakers on the Senate floor. “We need to fix that system.”
The Senate majority pulled a handful of policy bills to the floor earlier Saturday for a potential vote, including bills to make changes to the state’s workers compensation system, a measure to cap non-educational state spending, a bill to give veto power to principals over teachers assigned to their schools and a measure on payday loans. Those bills could potentially come up for a vote on Sunday.
Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, accused the other side of taking the revenue bills hostage for those policy bills.
“I think it’s immoral,” he said. “We have an obligation under the Constitution to pass a budget.”
In an emailed statement, Gov. Jay Inslee called the list of bills “a step in the wrong direction and will make it harder to reach agreement on a budget.”
Lawmakers are nearing the end of a 30-day special session that began May 13 and is set to end Tuesday. They face a $1.2 billion budget shortfall for the two-year cycle that ends in the middle of 2015. That doesn’t include an additional approximate $1 billion that lawmakers are seeking in response to a court-ordered requirement that the state spend more on its basic education system.
Republicans control the Senate with the help of two Democrats, known as the Majority Coalition Caucus. The House and Senate have been locked in budget negotiations for weeks, and Inslee has said another special session would start Wednesday if needed.
As in the original budget, the Senate’s new 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, like the construction budget. A program that provides cash aid to blind, disabled or older people who are typically waiting for approval of federal benefits would be cut by nearly $41 million, less than the $80 million cut initially sought in the original Senate budget passed in April.
The budget leaves nearly $600 million in reserves at the end of the two year budget cycle ending mid-2015.
Compared to the current budget, the spending plan for the coming two years adds $1.5 billion more to K-12 education, including about $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 in Saturday’s proposal includes more than $240 million on a learning assistance program targeted to high-poverty schools and $41 million to phase in expansion of full-day kindergarten, both which were included in the Senate’s first budget.
The Senate also moves forward with Medicaid expansion, with the assumption that the move will save the state nearly $320 million.
The Senate budget also restores pay cuts to public school employees and state employees, and it pays for fulfillment of collective bargaining pay agreements for state employees.