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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 08 March 2006

OLYMPIA—MajorityDemocrats unveiled their go-home budget Tuesday, praising it as a compassionate, yet prudent use of the state's projected surplus of $1.6 billion.

Republicans, though, called it an undisciplined spending spree that will set the state up for massive red ink next year.
The final debate and voting on the budget was scheduled for Wednesday. Leaders continued to hold out hope for adjournment Wednesday, a day before the allotted 60 days runs out.

Negotiators released details of a $1.35 billion supplemental state budget that also includes more than $53 million in business tax cuts and a savings account of $935 million.

The latter includes appropriations into reserve accounts for schools, health care and pensions. Those pots of money are expected to be quickly depleted next year to help write the 2007-09 budget.

House and Senate budget chairwomen said the package is a wise blend of spending, tax relief and savings. The $522 million in additional general fund spending includes K-12 education, colleges, health care, human services, prisons, mental health and more.

The supplemental spending will go atop the $26 billion, two-year budget adopted last spring. Including the $720 million tucked into three savings accounts, lawmakers' new budget total is $27.3 billion.

The spending package is a little higher than Gov. Chris Gregoire or either chamber had initially approved. Democrats in both houses asked negotiators to add money for everything from health care to an unexpected new pay boost for teachers.

The governor and leaders also tucked in personal priorities, including low-income housing, a prison computer system and money to refurbish minor league baseball parks.

Negotiators also released plans for construction and transportation budgets and for a tax-cut package. The latter includes a variety of business tax breaks but no general reductions.

The plan does include elimination of the $5 daily, $50 annual, day-use parking fee for state parks.

Minority Republicans, who were shut out of the negotiations, were unhappy with the spending level, which is 17 percent above last biennium if the savings accounts are included.

"They've set themselves up for a $600 million problem next time, maybe higher," said Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, GOP budget lead in the House. "Spending limits for the Democrats seem to have no relevance."

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, said Gregoire earlier "dug both high heels in, saying she was going to hold the line" but is acquiescing to a sizable spending increase and lower reserves than she had wanted.

"This is not what I call fiscallyresponsible," Alexander said.

But the budget chairwomen, Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, and Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, had high praise for the budget deal. They said the plan makes needed investments in education, health care, human services and jobs, while maintaining a healthy reserve.

"It hit right in my comfort zone," Prenctice said in an interview. "This is truly the best give and take I've ever seen in this place."

Both parties have been guilty of "frittering away" previous surpluses and have hopefully learned their lesson, she said.
"Notice how cautious we were," Sommers told reporters. "We have $935 million in savings. I've never seen that before.
"Fiscalconservatives reigned here. They really won out."

Gregoire likes the finished product and hasn't talked about trimming it with her veto pen, said spokeswomanHolly Armstrong.

The education section includes $28.5 million for remedial help for students strugglingwiththe Washington Assessment of Student Learning and $13 million to help students with math and science.

A small teacher salary increase of 0.5 percent is provided at a cost of $16 million, combined with an earlier boost of about 1 percent. Money is added to the levy equalization program and equipment for vocational programs.

Gregoire's new Department of Early Learning was given over $2 million in startup money.

The budget boosts higher education enrollments by nearly 500, and adds to opportunity grants, community college faculty pay and the job skills program.

The plan expands the Basic Health Program, the state-subsidized insurance plan for the working poor, by 6,500 clients to 106,500. The Children's Health Program is expanded by 14,000, and extra money is added for pandemic flu preparedness and for community clinics.

The proposal adds $50 million for mental health, $10 million for nursing homes, $18 million for prescription drug copays, $52 million for welfare programs, and money for other human service programs.

Natural resource agencies, including parks, are in line for $19 million.

The budget also has $7 million for minor league baseball fields, $14 million for housing, and $23 million for a new energy loan program.

The plan plows $350 million into pensions — $48 million this year and the rest in a pension reserve.

— The Associated Press

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