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State House Democrats roll out their budget

Washington House Democrats have unveiled a plan to close a $5 billion shortfall over the next two years. The plan released Monday would close a $5 billion shortfall and yet still manage to save several programs the governor proposed to eliminate.

It would privatize the state’s liquor distribution center and impose a $10 state park fee. It would also allow for the early release of some prison inmates. House Budget Chair Ross Hunter (D-Medina) calls it a responsible and sustainable budget.

“We focused on preserving services and programs that help us educate our children, care for those not able to care for themselves and to save lives. We found ways to save money and cut costs but we’ve also had to make very difficult cuts," Hunter says.

Back in December, Governor Chris Gregoire said her budget used the word 'eliminate' more than 80 times. It was an all-cuts blueprint.

Gregoire's fellow Democrats, on the other hand, vowed to use the word eliminate as little as possible. For instance, the House budget would preserve the Basic Health Plan and Disability Lifeline -- but as much leaner programs.

Even so, Hunter calls the cuts deep.

"We're all very aware this budget will result in painful consequences for real people."

For instance, fewer personal care hours for the developmentally disabled. Dollar-wise, one of the biggest cuts is to higher education – nearly $500 million offset by higher tuition. Other savings would come from letting some prison inmates out 120 days early.

One of the most controversial provisions is an idea for raising new cash. The Washington House budget would lease the state's liquor distribution system to a private company for 20 years in return for $300 million cash up front.

Democratic State Treasurer Jim McIntire is wary of giving up future liquor revenues.

"I have been concerned in general about securitization of long-term streams of revenue to pay for short-term operating costs," says McIntire.

Republican reaction to the Democratic spending plan was tepid. Gary Alexander, the ranking Republican on the House Budget committee, says the cuts don't go deep enough.

"I think this budget just kicks the can down the road and we need to reduce the footprint of government," says Alexander.

In fact, under the House budget Washington would spend $2 billion more than it is in the current budget. Even so, as one Democrat noted, per capita spending would be at its lowest level in Washington since 1986.

The State Senate has not yet released its budget proposal. For example, the House budget would cut $200 million from a program to keep Kindergarten through 4th-grade classes smaller.

It would also reduce personal care hours for the developmentally disabled, saving nearly $100 million.

Even with the cuts, the proposal from Washington House Democrats would spend $2 billion more than the current two-year budget. Minority House Republicans say it doesn’t cut deep enough.

The Senate has not yet released its budget proposal.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.