House finally passes budget

"The state House of Representatives belatedly passed a budget Wednesday, but area senators have already voiced concerns over the spending package's plans for school and ferry funding.The House budget, which passed by an 85-13 vote, now moves to the Senate. The House had been called into extended session due to its inability to hammer out a budget before the scheduled March 10 close.Rep. Tom Huff, R-26th District and Republican co-chair of the appropriations committee, called the budget a mid-course correction.This was a major undertaking to ensure that we addressed the challenges of Initiative 695, including transportation needs and public safety, he said.Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District, said the House took $60 million from the state general fund to provide a long-term solution to ferry funding. Her concern, she said, is that education and social services rely on money from the general fund - money that won't be available for other things, like schools, if it's allocated to ferry service.Much of the Washington State Ferry System's budget was eliminated when its main revenue source, the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, was reduced by Initiative 695.Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-35th District, agreed that the money currently earmarked for ferry funding would not go into the general fund under the House plan. Although that could divert money from education, she said, the Initiative 601 spending limits have swelled the general fund to the point that the ferry diversion shouldn't be a problem, she said.And if schools did end up needing the money, Haigh said, legislators could always draft a bill next year and change things. Transportation is really important to our communities, to the economy in our communities. If people in our area can't get to work, that's going to hurt schools, she said.Rep. Beverly Woods, R-23rd District, said the House Democrats essentially agreed to a plan originally proposed by Republicans.We want to give ongoing funding to the ferry system. Republicans have always been committed to the long-term health of our ferries, she said.Sheldon said she was also concerned that the House budget would take $4 million out of child protection services - the equivalent of 31 caseworkers - and cut $1.4 million from foster care.The Senate has the ability to build money back into the budget, Haigh responded. Our hope is they'll work some money back into certain items in the budget, she said.The Senate's ferry funding proposal allocates $300 million from the reserve fund to transportation with the intent of stabilizing ferry service until next session, when legislators will have more time to analyze long-term solutions, Sheldon said.It's like an emergency situation, like an earthquake, and the victim is our ferries. We need to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient, Sheldon said.Education could also be a problem under the House plan, according to Sheldon.The House allocated money to education through the Better Schools Fund and the Trigger Bill, both aimed at increasing funds for general education improvements and construction. The Better School Fund would be funded by lottery money and would allow school administrators to use the money for whatever they feel would improve learning in each school.The Trigger Bill allocates $101 million this year in state matching funds to go toward school construction. Sheldon's concern with the school bills lies in ultimate cuts to funding. Although the House used lottery and some emergency reserve money to shore up schools funding, there is still a $46 million dollar hole in education revenue, she said. That is a great concern, she said. I can't support that.But Haigh said representatives were able to build back about half the amount of funding lost because of reduced enrollments in K-12 education this year.The state allocates money to schools based on the number of kids enrolled. This year, fewer kids enrolled, but schools retained the same costs."

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