State budget expected to pass —

State budget expected to pass

By Joseph Turner; April 21, 2007 © The Tacoma News Tribune

April 22, 2007

Approval of $64.3 billion budget should come today as session ends

The House and the Senate reached agreement Saturday on the final pieces of a two-year, $64.3 billion state budget and are expected to pass it today – the final day of a 105-day legislative session.

The $33.4 billion state-funded operating and $4.3 billion capital budgets demonstrate the priorities of the Democrats: bigger spending on public schools, subsidized health care, the poor, minorities and union workers.

Democrats had the muscle to write and pass a budget thanks to their overwhelming majorities over Republicans in both chambers – 32-17 in the Senate and 62-36 in the House.

And for the first time in several years, they had enough money to make substantial investments in their priorities.

“It’s nice to have a little bit more money this year from past years,” said Rep. Helen Sommer, D-Seattle, chief budget-writer for House Democrats.
That was an understatement.

In fact, the Legislature had a surplus that was projected to top $2 billion in mid-2009, but wrote a budget that spends most of that, leaving $724 million in reserves.

Their budget adds 39,000 children to state-subsidized health plans, creates 9,700 new college slots, lets 3,000 more working poor enroll in the Basic Health Plan and starts to phase-in all-day kindergarten in public schools.

Education spending just in kindergarten through high school will be a record $15 billion.

Democrats also ramped up spending on programs that build housing for migrant workers and low-income families and guarantee low-interest loans to minority- and women-owned businesses.

The housing trust fund will get $140 million, up from $100 million in the current two-year budget and $65 million in 2001-03.

The Linked Deposit Program will double from $100 million to $200 million.

That’s a program in which the state deposits money in banks, accepts a low rate of return and backs up loans those banks make to minority and women-owned firms at below-market interest rates.

Democrats also doubled the amount of money the state will spend on the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program – from $50 million to $100 million. Those funds are used to preserve agricultural and other lands that are threatened by development.

Neither of the two Republicans who were assigned to negotiate the final budget with four Democrats showed up at Saturday’s announcement of an agreement between the House and the Senate.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, top Republican on the Senate budget committee, said he and House Republican Rep. Gary Alexander from Olympia weren’t really part of the final deal so they didn’t want to sign the budget agreement.

“It would have been like signing a blank check and giving it to my kids,” Zarelli said.

The Democrats’ budget spends a lot of money, he said.

“I was a sailor and I know that sailors are more thrifty than these guys are with their money,” Zarelli said.

The final budget adds about 3,000 employees to the state payroll, boosting the overall state general government and college work force to nearly 101,000. Almost 1,000 of the new state employees will work for the state Department of Corrections, which is opening a new prison in Eastern Washington and expanding other prisons, said Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, one of the budget negotiators.

The budget gives most public school and community college employees a 3.7 percent raise this year and a 2.8 percent raise in the 2008-09 school year. It also funds contracts negotiated by state employee unions for a 3.2 percent raise this July and 2 percent in July 2008.

But the budget delays those same pay raises for nonunion state workers by two months. Pridemore said the delay saves $15 million.

Zarelli said it also sends a message to state workers: If you don’t belong to a union, you’ll have to wait a little longer to get the raises the unions got for their members.

The University of Washington and Washington State University will be able to raise tuition for in-state undergraduates by 7 percent each of the next two years, while the four other four-year colleges are limited to 5 percent a year. Two-year community colleges can raise tuition 2 percent a year.

The state will give the UW Tacoma enough money to enroll 480 new students over the next two years, boosting total enrollment at the campus to 2,349 in the 2008-09 school year.

Lawmakers also used the budget to tell the state Liquor Control Board to open 29 more state-run stores on Sundays.

The state capital budget also includes $1.5 million to help pay for lights on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which is will open to traffic this summer.

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