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Originally published April 15, 2013 at 10:43 AM | Page modified April 15, 2013 at 10:43 AM

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Editorial: The legislative budget dance begins

The proposed Senate budget in Olympia is too low and the House budget is too high. The state is best served somewhere in the middle.

Seattle Times Editorial

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TWO state budgets are on the table in Olympia — $1.16 billion apart. Neither is a solid budget. They are negotiating positions. The real two-year budget will be somewhere between them.

Each begins with the forecast 6 percent increase in revenue from the taxes that will already be in effect. The Senate Majority Coalition spends this and stops. The House Democrats draw down savings and raise taxes, so that state spending goes up by more than 10 percent.

The difficulty of sticking with 6 percent is that the Washington Supreme Court has ordered a large increase in state support for education. The court did not specify an amount, but the idea has been about a billion dollars for the biennium.

Conveniently, the tax code is full of exemptions, and repealing some of them is good policy. This page has suggested repeals worth $227 million. The House Democrats would do $585 million. Each repeal means a fight, and the higher total is a lot to bite off in one year.

Democrats would also raise a similar amount by extending tax increases that were promised to be temporary. Such extensions should be partial, if at all. A political promise has to be worth something, even if discounted by half.

In reaching its $1.16 billion in extra money, the House Democrats drain $575 million out of the rainy-day fund. This money is for an emergency, and there is no emergency. (These problems are normal.) Grabbing the rainy-day money requires 60 percent of the votes, and probably won’t happen.

Finally, the Senate Republicans would cut tuition at state universities by 3 percent one time and the House Democrats would let tuition rise by 5 percent a year. The Democrats are more realistic, though complicating both approaches is how to manage the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program.

On the spending side, both caucuses unnecessarily accept the contract provisions for state employees that include no increase in the 15 percent share of health-insurance premiums employees pay. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire once asked employees to pay 26 percent, which is closer to what private-sector employees pay, and the figure should be closer to that.

The contracts also create a new pay grade for state employees who have been at the top of the scale for six years. There is no need for a new top scale.

In order to spend on education, which is good, the Senate squeezes everything else, some of which is not so good. It should not have cut the $144 million in child-care subsidies in the welfare-to-work program. The subsidy is needed to keep people working.

Consider also what is not done. The House, which wants credit for spending, makes virtually no cuts in social services. The Senate, which wants to be seen as holding the line on taxes, does not dismantle a single tax preference

Bottom line: The Senate budget is too low and the House budget is far too high.

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