House budget cuts $340M from current deficit

Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 9:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 9:03 p.m.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — State House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled $340 million in budget cuts and transfers to partially patch a hole of nearly $600 million in this year's state budget — countering cuts to some health care for children, education and assistance to the disabled that Gov. Chris Gregoire had proposed earlier.

House lawmakers also are leaving open an intriguing possibility for the Basic Health Plan: The state may seek to combine private financing and federal matching money to keep the health insurance service for poorer people operating in the short term. The "transition" cost was pegged at about $30 million for the current fiscal year.

After that, lawmakers could ask voters for more taxes to keep Basic Health functioning until 2014, when the federal health care overhaul would allow it to become federally financed, said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina.

Plans are still in the development stage for keeping Basic Health afloat until 2014, Hunter said Tuesday. But if lawmakers and private donors could find a way to keep it going, he said, the federal government would pay for the entire program for two years beginning in 2014 and cover 90 percent of its cost afterward.

"Right now, we don't have the funds to run this program," Hunter said. "So we're saying, absent a bridge strategy in the very short run — from now until when you might run a referendum — that will have to be made with private contributions."

Some 55,000 people currently are covered by Basic Health, which has a sliding scale for premiums and other cost-sharing payments. New enrollees are capped and the waiting list tops 136,000, the state said earlier this month.

Because of a fall in revenue, the state faced a $1.1 billion budget deficit through June. Lawmakers met in a special session in December and cut about $590 million from that shortfall.

The House budget bill released Tuesday decreases the deficit by another $340 million by cutting $216.5 million and transferring $123.8 million from other sources.

It leaves about $260 million still left to balance in the deficit. There's also another deficit of nearly $5 billion waiting for the state's next two-year budget, which covers spending from this July 1 through the end of June 2013.

The House budget proposal leaves school levy equalization funds for poor school districts intact and maintains the state's Disability Lifeline program, which helps adults who can't work. Their budget also preserves a health care program for children.

"One of our goals going into this process was to protect our children as much as we possibly could," said Hunter. "We couldn't save everything, but we really prioritized core services for kids."

House Democrats said they wanted to preserve various social services programs as well, including state food assistance program for legal immigrants, prescription drug assistance for seniors, and mental health assistance.

The House budget bill was heard in committee Tuesday and officials expected it to be approved by the Ways and Means Committee as early as Wednesday.

Gregoire has urged lawamakers to pass a budget by early February. Even though the House bill released Tuesday doesn't get all the way through solving the near-term deficit, it did please state Treasurer Jim McIntire, who has argued for swift budget-balancing to preserve the state's credit rating.

In the December special session, lawmakers reduced the deficit by cutting $100 million from education and social services programs and other transfers and cuts.


AP Writer Curt Woodward contributed to this report.



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