Senate OKs big state budget plans; talks with House ahead —

Senate OKs big state budget plans; talks with House ahead

By David Ammons; March 31, 2007 © The Vancouver Columbian

March 31, 2007

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- The Washington Senate, in an unusual Saturday floor session, approved plans to spend over $45 billion to run state government, build highways and finance a construction boom over the next two years.

Racing an adjournment deadline now just three weeks away, senators approved their version of state operating, construction and transportation budgets. This sets up final negotiations with the House during the waning days of the session, which must wrap up by April 22.

Both houses are dominated by the Democrats and Gov. Chris Gregoire is a Democrat. That means negotiations, and disputes, will be largely an all-in-the-family affair.

The House adopted its budget plans on Monday. The tone of the Senate debate and the vote margins were similar to the House's - unanimous approval of the construction budget, a strong bipartisan vote for the highway plan and then scrappy debate and a nearly partyline vote on the main operating budget.

The spending plans include:

-OPERATING. Senators adopted a $33.3 billion two-year budget to cover the basics of state government, including public schools and colleges, health care, environmental programs, welfare, parks and prisons. The K-12 and higher education system would get large increases, 38,000 more children provided health care, and millions poured into the ailing state prison and parole system.

The plan spends heavily from the state's $2.2 billion projected surplus.

The vote was 30-17, with conservative Democrat Tim Sheldon of Potlatch joining a solid bloc of Republicans in opposition.

Republicans said the spending plan is too rich and sets up the state for a billion-dollar deficit, forcing taxes or spending cuts. Democrats said it's a wise mix of new spending and restraint. The Senate plan would leave a reserve of $766 million, including $159 million in a hard-to-tap, constitutionally protected "rainy day" fund.

"It's a time for hope and optimism," said Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, chief architect of the operating budget. "It's a great opportunity to step forward as a state."

-TRANSPORTATION. The Senate voted 44-3 for a new $8.1 billion highway budget plan that would keep 432 transportation projects on track by dealing with a $2 billion cost overrun.

-CONSTRUCTION. Senators unanimously approved a $4.2 billion construction plan, called the capital budget, that includes $882 million to help local school districts build new schools, a 55 percent increase over the current budget.

It also proposes spending over $1 billion on college campuses, $238 million for Puget Sound cleanup and salmon recovery, $156 million for prison facilities, and $100 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.

The construction budget, sometimes called the pork budget for its something-for-everybody appeal, was hailed by Chairwoman Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, for "promoting prosperity" by creating good-paying construction jobs, building community infrastructure and keeping abreast with the needs of schools and colleges.

The transportation plan drew numerous barbs and amendments from the Republicans, but passed 44-3 anyway. Republicans sought to earmark sales tax receipts from transportation projects for roads and bridges. That money currently goes into the general treasury and is used for schools and other programs, not transportation.

Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, said that money could finance over $1 billion worth of projects - the North-South Freeway in Spokane, a new Columbia River crossing in Vancouver, work on U.S. 2, projects in Whatcom and Skagit counties, and work on Route 17 from Othello to Ephrata.

Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who has pledged to look for money for those and other projects, said the sales tax shift would unwisely pit schools against roads. The amendment lost on a voice vote.

Republicans also lost efforts to block tolls on the new 520 floating bridge and Interstate 405 improvements, and failed to shift Seattle's $2.4 billion in viaduct money to other projects.

Haugen called the overall plan "truly a bare-bones $8 billion budget" most notable for getting previously promised projects back on schedule. It's a major accomplishment to cover the huge cost-overrun and keep the projects on track, said Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, GOP transportation leader.

Republicans threw up a blizzard of amendments on the main operating budget, but they didn't stick. They tried to ban sex change operations for Medicaid clients, cancel a study on grizzly bears and ban public service announcements featuring statewide elected officials or their spouses.

They also sought changes on health care, veterans services, and supervision of ex-offenders.

But Sen. Joe Zarelli, Ridgefield, the Republicans' budget leader, said his biggest concern is "the size of the pie" and whether Democrats are spending the state into a big deficit.

The state's economy is bright right now, but experts believe it will cool off in the next two years, he said. Much of the state's $2.2 billion surplus came from a one-time infusion of revenue from a once-red hot housing and construction sector, and that is not sustainable, he said.

Zarelli tried without success to lower the spending by nearly $500 million.

Budget Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, called the Democrats' budget "a blueprint for the future. We are building for security for Washington's future."


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