Legislators: Budget wasn't pretty, but it's done

POULSBO — It wasn't pretty. It wasn't easy. It was grueling and painful, a process filled with tears, they said, but they got it done.

On April 24 the House passed the 2009-11 budget with 54 yeas and 42 nays. On April 25 the Senate passed the budget with a 29-20 vote.

To balance the biennium operating budget at $31.4 billion — $1.2 billion less than the 2007-09 budget — legislators cut $4.3 billion from program and public employee compensation, transfered $1.5 billion from various reserve accounts into the general fund — a move they say can only be done once — and received $3 billion in federal stimulus dollars. Approximately $2 billion of the federal funds went directly to Medicaid and some went to local governments and school districts.

On May 3, District 23 legislators — Rep. Sherry Appleton (D — Poulsbo), Rep. Christine Rolfes (D — Bainbridge), and Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D— Bainbridge) — spoke about the budget process and the reality of the cuts at a 23rd Legislative District Democrats meeting at the Poulsbo Fire Hall.

The legislators were bleak about the budget and said they don't like it. But they also found and concentrated on the positives stemming from the 105-day legislative session.

"It was a grueling session with a lot of pain and tears, frankly," Rockefeller said. "We sat in meetings where people were reduced to tears because of the cuts that had to be made. We tried to (make cuts) in a way that will do the least long-term damage to health care, education, higher education, social services, the environment, but every area did suffer some reductions."

The most challenging cut the legislators spoke about was in the health and human services arena, as the Basic Health Plan was cut by 40,000 slots.

In a May 1 interview with the Seattle Times editorial board Gov. Christine Gregoire said some 18,000 were waiting to get on the Basic Health Plan, so in actuality about 58,000 slots were cut.

"It was really a terrible, terrible session," Appleton said. "I've never felt that way."

Public K-12 education received the least amount of cuts, Rockefeller said, as cuts to school districts averaged 2.6 percent. However, more than likely hundreds of teachers across the state stand to lose their jobs, as Initiative 728 funds have been suspended for at least two years. Class size reductions for kindergarten through fourth grade have been fully funded.

"I-728 was not completely cut. It just got massacred, reduced severely," Rolfes said. "Any program not state wide or in just a few schools was cut, just eliminated. The concept was we need to distribute the funds fairly. The school districts will have to decide how to deal with sixth grade and higher class sizes."

Tuition for four-year higher education institutes was raised by 14 percent and community colleges say a 7 percent hike. At the state government level, all management staff salary increases have been frozen for a year, state contributions to pensions were reduced and up to 8,000 layoffs to public employees and teachers are possible.

There were some bright spots in the budget, according to Appleton.

The budget has an approximate $822 million dollar reserve as a backup if the economy continues to creep downward. General Assistance Unemployable, drug and alcohol treatment, drug courts and family planning services were preserved, Appleton said. Another 20,000 children were insured so approximately 96 percent of the state's children are covered.The Poulsbo Marine Science Center received $500,000 and Olympic College received $2 million for construction.

Perhaps the biggest positive for the 23rd legislators can be found in transportation, as more than 40,000 people will be going to work on approximately $5 billion in transportation projects across the state. Rolfes said Washington has one of the biggest transportation budgets in the nation.

In Kitsap County specifically, Rolfes said King County provided some funds for Kingston's passenger ferry.

"They have the money they need to build the boats and a little to subsidize the operating costs so I'm hoping we can get that going in the next year," she said.

The legislators are most likely returning for a possible very brief special session toward the end of the month or early June to discuss a few pieces of legislation known as "necessary to implement the budget," bills: levy lid, levy equalization, immigration and criminal justice.

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