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State budget: Republican 'political stunt' rattles Olympia

The budget passed by the Washington State Senate has set the stage for a political showdown in Olympia.

In a brief coup, three Democratic Washington state senators — Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Jim Kastama of Puyallup — sided with the GOP last weekend to force the Republican budget through the Senate in a 25-24 vote.

The budget battle extended from Friday evening into early Saturday morning, with both sides pontificating on the play.

At one point, the Democrats attempted something of a filibuster when they called for the 235-page GOP budget to be read out loud on the floor. Eventually, the gamesmanship subsided, and the Republican budget passed — one that was far different from the Democrats’ budget proposed earlier in the week.

State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) said the weekend’s antics were something she’s never experienced in Olympia.

“In my opinion, (these) actions constitute a breach of our once transparent and public budgeting process,” she said in a prepared statement. “For years the Senate has taken pride in its transparent budgeting process. This has built trust with our public when it comes to understanding and interpreting complex budgets. But…we have laid waste to all that good work; all that trust.”

Regarding the budget, District 47 State Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn) told The Mirror: “It was an honest attempt to break a logjam in the process, and redefine the budget box to a lower level of spending. It is just as legit a budget as the proposal passed by the House, and more legit than the other Senate proposal that didn’t even have the votes to get out of committee.”

Two of the major changes in the GOP’s budget from the one proposed by the Democrat majority of the Senate included extensive cuts to K-12 education to the tune of $44 million, and $30 million in cuts to higher education in the state. In the Democrats’ budget, education was untouched.

“This budget contains devastating cuts that will shatter our public safety net and deeply harm our K-12 educational system, a system that Senate Democrats proposed leaving entirely intact,” Eide said.

The safety net cuts, as referenced by Eide, involved the elimination of a state program known as Disability Lifeline. The program provides welfare and health care for unemployable adults who aren’t covered by the federal Social Security program. Outside of that program, other differences in the budgets include a $502 million reserve fund in the GOP version, as opposed to $369 million the Democrat budget had set aside. Another difference: the GOP budget does not include delaying the payments of $330 million to schools, an accounting trick intended to help close the budget gap.

The proposed budget will head to the House, where it’s expected to meet a hostile reception. Democrats hold a 56-42 majority in the House, almost certainly meaning more fireworks, and more budget battles, are on their way.

State Sen. Joseph Zarelli called his Republican budget proposal a message “of strength, understanding of the times, and budget sustainability,” he said. That’s based upon the principles of not spending more money than revenue coming in, and staying away from what he described as “gimmicks” such as the $330 million deferred payment to school districts that the Senate Democrats had used in their budget proposal announced on Feb. 28.

Sheldon said his switch had nothing to do with political affiliation, and everything to do with representing his constituents and providing a sustainable budget for the state.

“Obviously the $330 million payment forward that would go on next year’s biennium, that’s the big issue,” he said. “I consider it a gimmick, a trick, false accounting. I’m a business-person too and I see the benefit of revenues and expenses being equal.”

Sen. Ed Murray (D-43rd, Seattle), chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he thought that he was going to work with Senator Zarelli to put out a bi-partisan budget similar to 2011.

“They didn’t negotiate in good faith,” he said of his Republican counterparts, “and I’m deeply disappointed because I thought we had an agreement.”

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Scott Panitz of the WNPA Olympia News Bureau contributed to this report.

 

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