State reaches budget plan

OLYMPIA — After 150 days of debating, posturing and negotiating, legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee reached agreement Thursday on a $33.6 billion spending plan to carry many state programs through the next two years. It also is expected to stave off a partial government shutdown that would have started Monday.

“State government will continue to operate,” Inslee said.

The operating budget was passed by the Senate at about 5 p.m. Friday, followed by the House at about 7 p.m. The transportation budget was still waiting for a vote Friday night.

Inslee released no details of the agreement in his short announcement of the budget agreement, but legislative leaders later offered some broad outlines of the deal, either in meetings with their rank-and-file members or in interviews with the media.

Among them:

• An extra $1 billion would go to public schools, a jump in spending necessitated by a state Supreme Court ruling that the state is falling down on its constitutional duty to children’s education. It will expand programs for all-day kindergarten around the state and decrease class sizes for the youngest students, add 80 hours of instruction for middle and high schools and put more state money toward maintenance and transportation costs.

• A freeze in tuition for public colleges and universities for the coming school year, with an increase next year only if the schools add money to state need grants for low-income students.

• Health insurance for about 300,000 low-income residents through the expansion of Medicaid in the federal Affordable Care Act.

It cuts some social service programs, including Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and makes changes in state employee benefit programs, including a $25 per month charge in health care rates for smokers and a $50 per month fee for keeping a spouse on state insurance, if that person has comparable insurance benefits with another employer.

“There are no big ‘trophy cuts,’ ” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, using a term legislators sometimes use to describe high-profile political reductions to the budget. “It does what we all said we wanted to do at the beginning of the year,”

As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways & Means committee, Hoquiam Sen. Jim Hargrove played a key role in creating a budget that would be acceptable to the Republican-run Senate and the Democrat-run House. He attributed lagislators’ ability to create a budget without dramatic cuts to the state’s economic upswing.

“It is encouraging to see that things are beginning to improve in our state,” Hargrove said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but things are turning around. Because of that turnaround, we have a remarkable budget before us today.”

Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, the House Republicans’ chief budget negotiator, said the public should have some comfort in knowing that all caucuses and all political positions were present in the talks. “At least everybody’s voice was heard,” he said.

But Raymond Democrat Sen. Brian Hatfield said this year’s political climate in Olympia has been more divided and lacking in cooperation.

He said that’s why the budget took so long to pass.

“We were sent here to lead, not to draw lines in the sand and steer our ship to the edge of a cliff,” Hatfield said. “That is not the way to govern. In the future, I look forward to creating new paths that will foster cooperation and collaboration. These are the true methods of successful government and the only way to drive our state forward.”

Agreement on the budget came the same day the House resurrected and passed a plan to spend an extra $10 billion during the next 12 years on transportation, a combination of new construction projects, increased maintenance and additional money for transit. That bill, which failed by one vote Wednesday, would raise gasoline taxes by 6 cents on Aug. 1 and another 4.5 cents on July 1, 2014.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the budget meets goals of boosting education, holding down college costs and generally “lives within our means.” It takes advantage of increased revenue projections from a recovering economy along with tax law changes that have broad support. But it does not eliminate any tax preferences for businesses, which are more controversial.

“Over the last 24 hours, we’ve been doing the negotiations on the little stuff,” Hill said. Some items that remain controversial — including money for a study of fish consumption rates that eventually could halt or greatly increase the cost of developments — were taken out of the budget and will pass or fail on their own.

While negotiations have not been open to the public, Hill said “everything you’ll see in the budget has been pretty well vetted during hearings and votes on previous budget proposals. But he couldn’t guarantee that there’s nothing in the final budget agreement that didn’t have a public hearing.

“I think it’s a budget that has broad appeal,” he said.