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Lawmakers meet to slice state's budget deficit

OLYMPIA - The State Legislature convened a one-day special session this past Saturday in Olympia to cut up to half of a $1.1 billion expected deficit in 2011.

The session was praised by Representative Bruce Chandler (R-Granger).

"It was a test of good faith," he said. "The deal could have gone sideways at any point but it didn't. That makes me optimistic for the upcoming session in January."

The Senate and the House approved a package of spending cuts that narrows the shortfall in the current operating budget. The package was negotiated over several days of talks involving Republican and Democrat leaders, as well as the governor.

"There are certainly portions of the bill that will cause disappointment, hardship in some cases, and probably resentment, but overall, it reflects the priorities of government approach to budgeting that Republicans have long advocated," said Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxee).

Chandler agreed, noting the cuts were very painful for some and some members of the house didn't even show up for the vote, which Chandler said was a form of protest.

The cuts include K-4 education funding, non-essential health services for Medicaid and the closure of McNeil Island, a prison in the Puget Sound.

Chandler said the prisoners there would be transferred to other correctional facilities and the move will save a good portion of money.

Chandler said he wasn't happy with cuts to higher education, most notably because the cuts affect community colleges more than four-year universities. The levy equalization for state school districts was saved.

"What we accomplished (Saturday) illustrates what can be achieved with a spirit of compromise and bipartisan collaboration," Taylor said. "The immediate budget savings we adopted today start the process of closing the deficit for the current fiscal year, but the bigger challenge comes in January when we buckle down for what promises to be one of the toughest legislative sessions in state history."

Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside) was disappointed with what he called gimmicks. He noted that $208 million of the $588 million in cuts were just gimmicks. Some cuts were from federal money that no one knew was coming.

He was also disappointed that there were various funds 'robbed' of $54 million.

"It gets us closer," Honeyford said of the cuts. "But the tough decisions were put off until January."

Honeyford was frustrated that state Republicans have been asking for a special session for months to address these shortfalls. He said if the legislature would have met sooner, the cuts made on Saturday wouldn't have been so painful.

The legislature will need to cut another $500 million in January. This will give them time to find ways to plug an expected $6 billion shortfall in the 2010-13 budget.

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