Senate's no-new-taxes budget raises questions

Republicans say they are helping education. Democrats say the costs for vulnerable people are way too high.
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Cherry trees bloom in Olympia as the House prepares to unveil its budget proposal.

Republicans say they are helping education. Democrats say the costs for vulnerable people are way too high.

Olympia's favorite metaphor: Mapping out Washington's 2013-2015 operating budget should be like a family planning its budget on the kitchen table.

No family's kitchen number crunching remotely resembles any state budget proposal unveiled so far — especially on Wednesday.

The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, with input from the minority Democrats, unveiled its proposed 2013-2015 operating budget Wednesday, providing $1.4 billion less than what Gov. Jay Inslee wants.

"The ultimate goal in this economy is not to raise taxes," said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee and the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The Senate proposal "rewards obfuscation," said Rep. Ross Hunter, who leads the writing of the Democrat-controlled House's proposed budget, which will be announced in a few days.

Inslee said, "The Senate proposal relies heavily on unworkable or unrealistic across-the-board savings, phantom cuts that will leave us with a bigger problem in our next budget."

In broad strokes, the Republican-oriented Senate's proposal increases the state budget by $2.1 billion, mostly going into education. Meanwhile, Inslee wants to increase it by $3.53 billion. In the key political element, the Senate proposal earmarks $1 billion to meet the Washington Supreme Court's McCleary decision mandate to improve basic education. The proposal got a boost toward $1 billion by eliminating teacher salary increases. Inslee wants to appropriate $1.26 billion for McCleary purposes in 2013-2015.

Beyond that, apples-to-apples comparisons get harder to make.

The Senate proposal looks to increase the $31.29 billion in the 2011-2013 budget to $33.21 billion in 2013-2015 with $33.25 billion in revenue and $611 million left over. Inslee seeks $34.66 billion in revenue, while spending $34.43 billion with $531 million left over.

The Senate proposal has neither new taxes nor closures of tax exemptions. But it would extend a hospital safety net tax by six years to raise $238 million for 2013-2015. Meanwhile, Inslee wants to raise $565 million by closing 11 tax exemptions, and another $661 million by keeping an otherwise-sunsetting beer tax and business and occupation service charge.

Beyond that, Inslee did not unveil a detailed budget, while the Majority Coalition Caucus did.

The Majority Coalition Caucus, made up of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, earmarked $1 billion to meet the 2013-1015 McCleary obligations, which include dramatically reducing teacher-to-student ratios in grades K-3 by 2018, phasing in all-day kindergartens by the same date, plus some other measures.

The Senate proposal starts phasing in all-day kindergartens, tackles obtaining buildings and supplies to handle more teachers, but does not to directly address the current teacher-to-student ratios. The Senate proposal would take $321 million earmarked to teacher cost-of-living salary increases under Initiative 732, and reroute that money to the 2013-2015 McCleary projects.

The Senate's plan also would move $262 million from the capital budget to put into the operating budget. It would take $179 million from other funds to put in the operating budget, including removing $42 million from the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, whose purpose is to nurture new biotech jobs. The Senate budget would trim $151 million through "administrative efficiencies." And it would put caps on some social services programs.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, is the committee's ranking Democrat. Both said their caucuses are not entirely sold — to various degrees — on the proposed budget.

 "The closer we get to reality (in the bipartisan budget-crunching), the farther we get from our caucuses," Hargrove said. Hill added, "It's a delicate dance."

Inslee slammed Wednesday's proposal. “The Senate proposal to address our basic education obligations," he said, "is funded in large part through cuts to vital services for children, families and vulnerable adults — exactly what I have said we must not do.

"The proposal released today would cut childcare subsidies for low-income families and other families working to get off welfare, and reduce long-term care services for the elderly and people with developmental disabilities. It would make deep cuts to our state prison system, would force us to close state parks and fall far short of my plan for expanding early childhood education opportunities."

Meanwhile, the House Democrats' Hunter also criticized the Senate proposal.  "You can't have all those sort of moves that are gimmicks," he said.

Hunter said parts of the Senate proposal are best-case scenarios that don't account for unexpected additional expenses. The Senate's proposed shifting of school support people — such as janitors and food workers — to being covered by the upcoming Health Benefits Exchange is flawed because health insurance matters are handled by contracts between school districts and employees, he said.

Hunter portrayed rerouting the $321 million from teachers' cost-of-living raises to paying for McCleary projects as a mistake since teachers have not received those raises for years. Inflation has cut the spending of what a teacher earns. "Ooh! That's going to help us have quality teachers -- really?" Hunter said on rerouting the $321 million.

He said the Senate Republicans' plan to limit upcoming state college tuition hikes to 3 percent could backfire on funding universities if the additional Senate appropriations don't cover the lost tuition. Several estimates are floating around on how much of the Republicans' extra university-related higher allocations really are increases -- because of different ways of calculating apples-to-apples comparisons. A few scenarios have the lost tuition being bigger than the Senate's appropriation to handle that loss.

The proposal to trim specific childcare programs could translate to more single mothers dropping out of the workforce and going on welfare, Hunter said. And he criticized the Republicans' generic trimming of $151 million in inefficient administration without details. "If you make the cuts, say what the cuts are. (Otherwise) it's a wish list," Hunter said.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8