State Democrats release $33.4 billion, two-year budget —

State Democrats release $33.4 billion, two-year budget

By Kathie Durbin; April 21, 2007 © 2007 The Vancouver Columbian

Saturday, April 21, 2007

OLYMPIA — Senate and House Democratic budget-writers released a two-year $33.4 billion state operating budget on Saturday that dedicates $13.5 billion to K-12 education and sets aside $724 million in savings.

If voters in November approve a constitutional amendment creating a rainy day reserve fund, $134 million of that ending fund balance will go into an account that lawmakers will not be able to tap without a 60 percent vote in both chambers, except in an economic recession or if the governor declares a statewide emergency.

Late Friday, the House joined the Senate in voting to send the rainy day reserve measure to voters. The vote in the House was 74-23, with several liberal Democrats in opposition.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, was the only Clark County representative from either party to vote against the measure. Echoing the view of  House Appropriations Committee Chair Helen Sommers, he called it ‘reckless” and said it would create a “slippery slope constitutionally.”

“It essentially turns the governing process over to the minority party,” he said. Nonetheless, he predicted the bill would find favor with voters.

The measure passed the Senate 45-3 in February and was strongly supported by Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire and most Republicans.

“By setting aside money when times are good, we will ensure that we are always prepared to keep our commitment to Washington families,” the governor said after the vote.

The House and Senate will vote on the 2007-09 operating budget Sunday as one of their last acts before adjournment. With Democrats holding a 32-17 majority in the Senate and a 62-36 majority in the House, the spending measure is expected to pass easily, although a few bills with budget implications still were being debated late Saturday.

Clear priorities 

 The House and Senate were only $100 million apart on the size of the operating budget even before a conference committee convened to iron out differences.

“Our priorities are clear,” Senate Ways and Means Chair Margarita Prentice said at a news conference and budget-signing ceremony Saturday with Sommers. “We’ve put more money into education. We’re trying to plan ahead for access to higher education. … We’ve also made Washington a better place to do business: stronger, smarter, healthier and more prosperous.”

No Republicans were present for the budget roll-out. Sen. Joe Zarelli, ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said that his party was excluded from the conference committee and that he was not given a copy of the budget in advance.

“It’s a little frustrating when we spend several weeks talking about negotiating a budget,” he said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense (to) show up. When I was involved in writing the budget, we had the minority party sitting in the room with us, going through the budget item by item.”

Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, predicted that the Legislature will soon be forced to tap the rainy day reserve because the budget proposed by Democrats will spend the two billion dollar surplus with which the state begins the next budget cycle.

“This will be the third budget adopted since Gov. Gregoire took office, and each of those budgets had jacked up state spending well over 10 percent,” Alexander said in a statement.

“I’m pleased the governor decided this year to get on board with Republicans and call for a constitutional rainy day fund. But if the latest economic forecast is correct, the budget she signs almost guarantees the rainy day fund will have to be tapped as soon as there’s money in it.”

Pension benefit in peril

The budget includes $99 million in projected savings from repealing gain-sharing, a pension benefit the Legislature created in 1998 that promised to share earnings from the investment of pension funds with retired teachers and state employees.  The program is projected to cost the state $2.3 billion over 25 years.

But late Saturday, the House voted 52-45 to pass an amended repeal bill that provides a more generous settlement to retirees in exchange for ending gain-sharing. And several House members argued against repeal, saying it breaks a promise made to state workers.

“It’s not right to change something so long-term in the middle of the game,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. “It gives us a big black eye.
Rep. Bill Fromhold, D-Vancouver, who serves on a select committee on pension reform, had worked with employee groups for three years to come up with an acceptable gain-sharing bill.

He voted against the amended version, saying it would cost the state too much money.

Zarelli predicted that the additional benefits provided under the amended bill could reduce the net savings from eliminating gain-sharing by as much as two-thirds over the long term.

The Senate still has to concur with the changes. 

Emphasis on education

Gregoire made education reform her top budget priority for the 2007 session, and the budget reflects that emphasis.  It adds 9,700 slots for students at colleges and universities, including 200 new slots at WSU Vancouver in 2007-08 and an additional 225 in 2008-09.

To make a college education more affordable, the budget limits annual tuition increases to 7 percent at four-year colleges and 2 percent at community colleges.

It also provides various tuition grants to students from low-income families and $15 million in opportunity grants to help students pursue training in high-demand fields.

The capital budget approved late Sunday includes $1.1 billion for higher education facilities, including new buildings at Clark College and WSU Vancouver, and $880,000 for construction of new K-12 schools.

The K-12 budget adds $51.2 million to begin phasing in all-day kindergartens, starting with schools that serve low-income students.

To help school districts that are struggling to provide basic services, it adds $60.6 million in special education funding, $25 million to help defray student transportation costs, and  $25.8 million to allow school districts to hire more classified employees.

It also provides one-time funding of $12.4 million to help schools to upgrade their technology, with $3,000 going to each elementary school, $6,000 for each middle school or junior high school, and $11,000 for each high school.

To improve math and science education, the budget includes $39.5 million to pay for  three days of professional training for every middle and high school math and science teacher. It also includes $12.1 million to help high school seniors who still have not passed the  Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

Other spending

The budget also calls for spending:
$22 million to expand the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program to serve an additional 2,250 low-income children;

$6 million to set up a program that will rate the quality of state-funded child care programs;

$25 million to provide health coverage to an additional 38,000 children;

$20 million to assist local public health agencies;

$20.5 million to plan and implement a modern court case management system to track criminal and civil cases in state courts.

$226 million in cleanup funds for Puget Sound;

$100 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, which funds projects to preserve wildlife habitat, protect rare ecosystems, and establish new community parks and trails.

The program will pay for 10 Clark County projects, from pocket parks in the East Image and South Fishers Landing neighborhoods to a $900,000 allocation that will allow the city of Camas to begin development of a regional trail through the 125-acre Washougal River Greenway.

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