09 29 2016
  1:22 am  
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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- A tentative agreement to fill Washington state's $5 billion budget shortfall includes cuts in nearly every corner of government, slashing pay for teachers and forcing other K-12 workers and state employees to take deeper hits.

Budget negotiators said there simply wasn't the money available in the $32 billion spending plan to sustain current salaries, and lawmakers talked openly about the need to make equitable cuts. In total, they will reduce spending by $4.6 billion over the coming two years.

"There were sacrifices made in every single part of services provided by state government," said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

The budget includes a 1.9 percent cut for teacher pay and a 3 percent cut for other K-12 employees. Teacher pay was not reduced as much because they already had their salaries cut when lawmakers decreased paid teacher-training days. The changes will save the state $179 million over the next two years.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said local contracts determine teacher salaries, so the legislative decision may not result in across-the-board cuts in pay, especially in districts with more financial flexibility because of their ability to raise money through local property taxes.

Lawmakers also were moving to suspend voter-approved cost-of-living adjustments for education employees, saving another $300 million.

Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, said she was disappointed by the spending plan and argued that the state needs to identify a new source of revenue to sustain schools. She warned that the budget likely will lead to growth in already-large class sizes.

"Let's not kid ourselves, this budget hurts kids," she said.

For state employees, they face a 3 percent reduction through unpaid leave, which will save $177 million.

Lawmakers are rushing to push the spending plan through their chambers by the end of Wednesday, when the special session comes to an end. Gov. Chris Gregoire commended lawmakers for making difficult decisions.

"I knew in December when I announced my budget that a sustainable future required heart-wrenching decisions," Gregoire said. She added that those decisions would affect "every Washingtonian -- and many families will lose critical state services that they've come to rely on."

House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt said one day probably wasn't enough time for the public to fully assess the plan. But he wasn't going to stand in the way of its passage and force lawmakers to remain in Olympia longer.

The Legislature wasn't able to reach a deal on the spending plan when its regular session ended a month ago, leading the Democratic governor to call them back for 30 days of overtime. Negotiators have been grappling over a series of challenging choices: whether to cut pay for teachers, how to save money in higher education and which social programs could do with less money.

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield, said he was pleased that all sides worked together in the negotiations.

"I'm sure there are some things where people felt like they won and other things where they felt like they were marginalized," Zarelli said. "Everybody's going to have their pluses and their minuses."

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the budget came together in a series of meetings that went late into the night. It was a daunting task, as all sides tried to cut billions in spending without causing too much damage, he said.

"We had a couple of moments where things were a little testy," Hunter said.

Of all the parties involved, House Republicans emerged as least supportive of the plan. DeBolt said many of his members were concerned by some of the cuts to school spending -- although he didn't offer specifics on the compromise.

"I don't see them getting a lot of votes on it," DeBolt said. But House Republicans did have input on the plan and have agreed not to stand in the way of a vote, he said.

The budget agreement comes just hours after leaders announced a crucial deal on how to overhaul the state's workers' compensation system. That plan is also being ushered through the Legislature quickly, easily passing the House on Monday afternoon.

There's still at least one major hurdle left for lawmakers to clear before Wednesday: They are still negotiating a deal that would lower the state's debt limit.

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