House gives strong send-off for budget cuts

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Washington's House gave nearly unanimous approval Friday to a belt-tightening budget plan that takes the first step toward erasing a $2.4 billion deficit.

The supplemental budget, approved by an unusually strong 94-1 vote, began a series of spending cuts as part of final revisions to the current two-year, $22.5 billion budget that runs through June 30.

The plan calls for more than 200 state workers to be laid off, about 20,000 clients to be barred with state-subsidized health coverage and agency overhead to be trimmed by millions of dollars.

The ideas were proposed by Gov. Gary Locke in his no-new-taxes plan for balancing the 2003-05 budget. The Republican Senate decided to snag many of his cost-cutting measures and put them into effect right away, to ease the eventual job of bridging the largest budget gap in state history.

In addition to the cuts, the supplemental budget adds a net of $119 million to pay unexpected cost increases for schools, prisons, health care and fighting forest fires.

State budget director Marty Brown said more expenses are coming, too. Caseload forecasters this week added $73 million to the estimated cost for state services for the next three years, including public schools and medical assistance, he said Friday.

Senate budget Chairman Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, hailed the House vote and said negotiators should be able to easily iron out differences between the two chambers, possibly next week.

Although most Senate Democrats objected to Rossi's budget, the House Democrats largely followed his suggestions. Rossi said he's not taking credit, but is pleased the House saw the logic of speeding up Locke's savings.

''It just makes sense,'' he said in an interview.

Brown said the House version is an improvement on the original Senate plan and is basically acceptable to the administration.

''There's nothing we'd fall on our swords over,'' he said.

Brown said he is trying not to read too much into the relative ease with which the Legislature is reaching agreement on the first round of spending cuts. Writing the main 2003-05 budget remains a daunting task, he said.

Brown, Rossi and House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, said the success does set a bipartisan and tightfisted tone to the budget-year session.

In commending the budget to the House on Friday, Sommers and her Republican counterpart, Barry Sehlin of Oak Harbor, said the plan wisely begins the tough cutbacks that will be required.

Sommers called it a ''careful and responsible'' approach that gives the Legislature a running start to help solve the financial emergency.

House amendments to the Senate's original version give the administration more flexibility in reducing the state payroll and eligibility for the Basic Health Plan for the working poor, she said. The House, for instance, allows prisons and colleges to fill vacancies as they occur.

The House also drops plans to cut most of the state Library budget and boosts spending for trauma hospitals.

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