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Tuesday, December 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Locke plan halts teacher raises, would suspend popular initiatives

Seattle Times chief political reporter

OLYMPIA — To help balance a wobbly state budget, Gov. Gary Locke wants the Legislature to suspend three popular citizen initiatives that boosted spending for education and health care.

Locke today will unveil a $22.9 billion budget proposal that would cancel $229 million in cost-of-living raises for teachers and $221 million slated to reduce elementary school-class sizes.

The plan also would redirect cigarette taxes voters dedicated to increasing enrollment in the Basic Health Plan, an insurance program for low-income people. Locke wants to use those taxes to pay for existing enrollment.

Initiatives can be amended by a majority vote of the Legislature two years after being approved by voters. The two education initiatives were passed in November 2000.

Any changes to the cigarette tax, which passed in November 2001, less than two years ago, would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

According to budget-briefing documents, the plan also calls for eliminating 2,500 state jobs, releasing 1,200 "low-risk" prisoners, and cutting $215 million in social-service programs "deemed less necessary to meet the most immediate health and safety needs."

More than 100,000 people work for the state.

The heavy cuts are necessary, Locke has said, because he wants to eliminate a potential $2 billion deficit without raising taxes.

Officials in the governor's budget office said they would not talk about the proposal until today.

Locke's proposal for the 2003-2005 budget cycle is an increase from the $22.7 billion budget that ends June 30. Costs for state programs are rising faster than revenues so cuts to existing services are needed.

Set to be released at a news conference this morning, the budget is the product of a new process Locke calls "Priorities of Government." State agencies were required to list their services in three levels of priority, and to include at least one-third in the lowest category.

The proposal is only the first step in a process that won't be completed until at least spring. The Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate will propose their own versions of the budget in the legislative session that opens Jan. 13.

The governor has said he is "focusing on the results people want." But backers of the three initiatives have long argued the strong victory margins prove the programs are what people want.

Locke's budget proposal says the changes are necessary because of the downturn in the economy and double-digit health-care inflation since voters approved the measures.

He wants to cancel $221 million that would have been spent reducing class sizes in the 2004-2005 school year. Money from the lottery, property taxes and budget reserves was earmarked by Initiative 728, which passed by nearly 72 percent of the vote.

Initiative 732, also passed in 2000, by nearly 63 percent of the vote, mandated annual cost-of-living raises for schoolteachers.

"With 80,000 jobs now lost across all economic sectors of the state economy, a pay raise for a single group of state-funded employees is not appropriate," according to the governor's budget documents.

Initiative 773, passed by 66 percent of voters in 2001, increased the cigarette tax to pay for an expansion of the Basic Health Plan, which provides insurance to low-income residents. The initiative said the money could be spent only to increase enrollment above 125,000 people.

Locke wants to be able to use the money to pay for enrollees under that cap to avoid deep reductions in the plan, though his proposal would end Basic Health Plan coverage for 59,800 people.

Locke's fellow Democrats were critical of the plan.

"Obviously there's a problem when the budget he's laying out does not implement the will of the people," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Locke is essentially proposing overturning three initiatives.

"It's going to be tough to put this budget together," she said. "Doing it entirely on the cut side — I think when people see it they are going to find it unacceptable," said Brown, who will become Senate minority leader when Republicans take over control in January.

"It means going backward in both education and health care," Brown said.

She also questioned why the education and health initiatives are threatened but not tax-cut initiatives sponsored by Tim Eyman.

"If we're going to ask the Legislature to overturn initiatives, are those the first three to start with? Where are the Tim Eyman initiatives? Do we need to take a look at any of those? I would say yes."

Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Issaquah, who will become Ways and Means chairman, said he likes much of what the governor is proposing. But, "is the governor going to stay in the game and fight for what he thinks is right or not?"

Other key pieces of the governor's proposal, according to the documents:

• Locke would save $99.6 million by releasing 1,200 "low-risk offenders" from state prisons — most of them drug-crime related — and eliminating state supervision of an additional 2,900 low-risk offenders. The governor's plan calls for accelerated implementation of a drug-sentencing bill passed by this year's Legislature, which calls for more treatment and less jail time.

• Locke would not propose cost-of-living raises for state employees or payment increases for people who provide services on contract, which would save a total of $351 million.

• Locke would increase how much state government employees and public-school teachers pay for health insurance. They would pay 20 percent of the cost of the monthly premium, up from 14 percent. Co-payments also would increase.

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com. Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

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