Gregoire to consider options for revenue

State budget: Governor also offers list of cuts to cover $2 billion shortfall

BRAD SHANNON; Staff writerOctober 28, 2011 


    Gov. Chris Gregoire recommended:

    • Cutting hundreds of state jobs and as many as 1,000 statewide, according to preliminary estimates.

    • Reducing contributions to state employee health insurance by $16 million, from an average of $850 per employee per month to $825. Public-school employees would see a reduction from $768 to $745, saving $20 million.

    • A statewide 50 percent cut in school district levy equalization payments in the first half of 2013. The money goes to “property-poor” school districts with higher property tax rates. The cuts include $1.7 million to North Thurston and $742,000 to Tumwater, with Olympia unaffected.

Gov. Chris Gregoire laid out a “dreadful” list of budget cuts totaling $2 billion Thursday, kicking off a two-month legislative debate over how to rewrite budgets and cover the latest shortfalls.

In a major shift from a year ago, Gregoire said she will look at revenue options that would allow lawmakers to avoid cutting the full $2 billion needed to cover the budget gap and maintain a reserve through mid-2013.

“We are done with what I call the Pac-Man budgeting approach. Three years of bites across government cannot solve this problem,” Gregoire said in a press conference at the Capitol where

she laid out proposed cuts that would get rid of some programs, reduce supervision of felons after their release from prison and pull help for schools, health programs and local governments.

“Coming on top of $10 billion in budget cuts, these are truly devastating. People are not going to get what they need. They are not going to get services that they expect,” Gregoire said.

Advocacy groups agreed and called for higher taxes.

“The $2 billion level she’s put forward is unacceptable. It’s horrifying when you look at the cuts to long-term care,’’ said advocate Ingrid McDonald of AARP Washington, which represents retirees and warned that people could die from lack of services.

McDonald said Gregoire’s list gets rid of personal care and nursing facility assistance for 5,000 elderly people and 800 others with disabilities, as well as adult day health services.

The governor’s cuts list includes ideas rejected by lawmakers earlier this year. She is asking the Legislature to reconsider when it convenes Nov. 28 for a 30-day special session.

On the health care side, Gregoire’s proposals eliminate the Basic Health Plan’s subsidized insurance coverage for 35,000 low-income residents, end medical coverage for 21,000 more people in the Disability Lifeline, cut money for mental health services, and end subsidies for all-day kindergarten.

Gregoire also would cut $150 million or half of the tax subsidy to tax-poor school districts, require higher class sizes in lower grades, and lop $166 million – or 15 percent – from funding for colleges. And she would reduce supervision over inmates released into communities to 12 months – with sex offenders remaining at 24 months.

Gregoire’s list of recommendations – in effect a sneak peek at her full budget due Thanksgiving week – also cuts the amount of state liquor profits shared with cities and counties, closes four mental wards at Western State Hospital, and closes the Rainier School for the developmentally disabled near Buckley.

Another revenue forecast is due Nov. 17, and the fear is it will bring more bad news. Gregoire outlined another $2.2 billion in cuts she’s considered but can’t stomach just yet.

Among those other options: Shortening the school year by five days for K-12 schools, halting state subsidies for school district transportation programs, and ending state payments for prescription drugs for Medicaid-eligible adults not in hospitals or nursing homes.

Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Art Jarvis has said he would rather see the Legislature shorten the prescribed 180-day school year than slash education funding across the board.

In a recent discussion posted on the school district website, Jarvis said the last round of state cuts helped set the stage for the eight-day teachers strike in Tacoma last month. He said cuts to the length of the school year could be restored when economic conditions improve. But if budget cuts result in school districts eliminating programs and people, he said, that could take decades to restore.

State budget director Marty Brown said it may be possible to keep the same number of instructional hours, but add short blocks of time to 175 school days, still meeting state requirements.

Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said in a joint statement that the listed cuts “underscore the immense challenge facing the people of Washington. Only the public services we most value, those we protected through three years of budget shortfalls, are still available to cut. We have few good choices left, and we must keep all the options on the table.”

But Murray has doubts lawmakers can get a full budget done by late December, as Gregoire hopes.

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield worked with majority Democrats in the Senate this year to achieve a rare bipartisan budget agreement, and he applauded Gregoire for putting her ideas out so early. The cuts list comes almost two months before the governor’s budget is typically released.

“It will be up to the Legislature to decide what government should and should not be doing, and at what cost to taxpayers,” Zarelli said in a statement. “We managed to accomplish that earlier this year, in a bipartisan manner, and that is my goal again.”

Zarelli did not mention new revenues, which Gregoire said some Republicans have raised with her privately.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he has been working on a budget. “This is a daunting problem,” Hunter said. “Everything on this list I didn’t have the votes for last session. But this is a different problem.”

Hunter said the state still must pay for basic education and maintain a safety net for the vulnerable and poor while avoiding harm to the economy that gutting higher education would cause.

State schools chief Randy Dorn – who in protest had refused to give Gregoire ideas for budget cuts – put out a statement, saying “these cuts can’t happen. Levy equalization is used to fund basic education services for students, including required services in special education.’’

Dorn supports new revenues, as do advocates for health programs.

“We really think it’s time for the voters to have a chance to stand up and say they want healthy communities,” said Molly Firth, policy director for the Community Health Network of Washington. “The Legislature needs to do that.’’

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 Debbie Cafazzo of The News Tribune contributed to this report.

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