Patty in the News

WASHINGTON – A measure providing more than half a billion dollars in funding for Washington state’s Medicaid program and to help pay teacher salaries cleared a critical hurdle Wednesday in the Senate.

The funding should allow the state to avoid a short-term budget crisis with the prospect of imposing across-the-board cuts.

“This amendment will allow Washington state to avoid (state employee) layoffs, service cuts or tax increases and it will make sure our children don’t walk through the schoolhouse door this September to larger class sizes and fewer subjects,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who had introduced the measure.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement the measure will help the state avoid “drastic” cuts.

“Such actions would have been devastating to Washington state by slowing our recovery and potentially pushing us toward a double dip recession,” the governor said.

The legislation provides $16.1 billion to help states pay for the growing cost of Medicaid as more low income people seek medical help because of the recession and $10 billion for school funding.

Washington would get $320 million for Medicaid and $208 million in school aid, Murray’s office said, though Gregoire’s office said the state should receive $338 million in Medicaid funding and $205 million for schools. The different estimates resulted from the use of complicated formulas and calculations. The final number might not be known until the money is actually distributed.

Last year’s $862 billion stimulus package included extra Medicaid and school funding for the states, but that was about to run out. Washington and dozens of other states had used the anticipated continuation of the funding to balance their budgets.

Gregoire said the education funding in the bill was not something the state had counted on. Her budget office still needs to learn what strings might attach to the school aid. She described Washington’s schools as being in better shape than others around the country that faced teacher layoffs.

The likely aid means Gregoire does not need to order across-the-board cuts or consider bringing state lawmakers to town for a special session for now.

But the state’s September and November revenue forecasts could change that, Gregoire said in a meeting with reporters at the state Capitol Wednesday morning. The Democrat also foresees a budget crisis in January and wants her own Cabinet to consider spending reductions that could provide an early start on closing an expected $3 billion budget shortfall for 2011-13.

The Senate voted 61-38 to end debate on the measure and a final vote is expected today. While 60 votes were needed to cut off debate, for final passage the bill needs only a simple majority. All of the Senate’s Democrats supported the measure along with Maine’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

The House has not approved similar legislation. Though the House has recessed until September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated she would call it back into session next week to consider the Senate bill.

The measure had become a priority for the Obama White House and congressional Democrats. Earlier efforts to pass smaller stimulus and jobs bills, including extending unemployment and providing a boost in small-business funding, were blocked by Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, warned the spending, particularly for the schools, could create a “permanent need for future state bailouts.”

McConnell also said the bill was a “brazen attempt” to pacify public employee unions and set up the need for a massive tax increase later this year.

The bill was supported by the National Education Association, which represents teachers, and unions representing federal, state and local government employees.

Murray rejected McConnell’s arguments.

“This is not about the teacher’s union, it’s about kids in the classroom,” said Murray. “This is about people today in our states struggling to get back on their feet.”

With concern about the ballooning federal deficit, the Murray-sponsored amendment was able to offset the cost of the bill by taking money from other government programs including some of which have had strong Democratic support.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the measure would reduce future federal deficits by nearly $1.4 billion over the next 10 years.

Among others things, Murray’s measure would roll back $11.9 billion in additional food stamp benefits that were scheduled to take place in 2014, take unspent money from programs that were slated to expire and close $9.6 billion in foreign tax credit loopholes to multinational companies.

Murray’s likely opponent in the November general election, Republican Dino Rossi, said, “this is a stopgap measure which only delays states from making the same tough budget decisions Washington state families are making every day.”

Among other things, Rossi said Murray’s bill cuts “needed” funding for the military.

Murray’s bill does take $2.3 billion from the Pentagon, but she emphasized the money was “unrelated” to current military operations.

- The News Tribune