Gov. Chris Gregoire continued to sound the alarm on Washington's budget woes Monday, pushing for a December special legislative session to enact a series of drastic spending cuts that would balance the state's books by July.
But majority of Democratic lawmakers don’t seem to be in such a rush, making a quickie December meeting less likely.
Leaders are looking for ways to patch the current state budget, which covers general spending through June 2011. Gregoire made across-the-board cuts to many programs earlier this year, but the deficit recently grew by about $385 million because of slow growth in tax collections.
Gregoire doesn’t need the Legislature’s permission to call a special session, but she can only limit its duration to 30 days. The Democratic governor wants agreement on an agenda beforehand to avoid lengthy deliberations that would hamper her money-saving plan’s effectiveness.
Some of the cuts would lead to layoffs in state government. That’s nothing new. But others would close down whole programs that provide social services to the disadvantaged. That’s something that has largely been avoided in two years of closing budget deficits by trimming, taxing and shuffling money between pots.
“We’re supposed to be the ultimate safety net, and we can’t be it anymore,” Gregoire said.
“When they come, we’re not going to be able to help them.”
Under her suggestions to the Legislature, the state-subsidized insurance program known as the Basic Health Plan would end. So would state-funded health insurance for children and the program Disability Lifeline, which provides cash grants and medical treatment for people temporarily unable to work because of a disability.
Those steps are among several requiring legislative action before Dec. 12, Gregoire said, in order to ensure the state is meeting legal requirements for giving notice that services are being cut.
There probably wouldn’t be enough time to efficiently pass a full supplemental budget making more wide-ranging adjustments to spending, Gregoire said Monday. Instead, she suggested a special session limited to granting authority for her specific cost-cutting plans.
“In order to save the amount of money to get us to June 30, I need action,” Gregoire said. “I need action as soon as I can get it.”
Gregoire had wanted counterproposals for budget cuts from the four legislative caucuses by Monday, but said she’d been asked to extend the deadline.
Incoming House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said House Democrats prefer a full supplemental budget over Gregoire’s suggested raft of quick program cuts.
“We want to include the public and all the stakeholder groups, and ensure that the product that we wind up with is something that everyone can live with,” he said Monday.
If that difficult task can’t happen in December, the best option would be a hard deadline to finish a supplemental budget by the end of the regular session’s first week, Sullivan said. The 2011 Legislature is scheduled to convene Jan. 10.
“I don’t think it has to be done this month,” Sullivan said. “If you rush to do it and you do it wrong, these are real people you’re impacting.”
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, already has raised doubts about the program eliminations in Gregoire’s plan.
In response to its release last week, Brown said lawmakers should “look at literally every opportunity to reduce the cost of delivering services before we eliminate those services outright.”
Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.