We're afraid that Washington lawmakers are in for a rude awakening when they assemble under the Capitol dome at noon Monday for their 105-day legislative session.
Sure, they know that the state is facing a $4.6 billion budget shortfall for the two-year funding cycle that begins in July. They know it intellectually. But judging by the talk of legislative leaders last week, we don’t think lawmakers truly understand the magnitude of the shortfall and the difficulty of the budget choices that lie ahead. Simply put, they aren’t there yet, when it comes to truly understanding just how challenging it’s going to be to balance the 2011-13 budget.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said as much – only more politely – when she spoke before a meeting of newspaper reporters and editors in a legislative preview session hosted by the Associated Press. The governor talked about the steep learning curve ahead for the 147 lawmakers who will make up the 62nd Legislative session.
Gregoire set the budget stage last month when she unveiled her proposed spending plan – an all-cuts budget without tax increases. Voters made it perfectly clear in November that they don’t want to pay more for state services.
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We suspect, however, that voters won’t much like what that leads to in the way of program eliminations, agency consolidations and cuts to public services that residents have come to rely upon.
Gregoire got teary-eyed when she unveiled her budget. Never, Gregoire said, did she believe that she would propose a budget with such drastic consequences for K-12 education, colleges and universities, and social service programs. The safety net that keeps those living on the margins of society from slipping into poverty and homelessness will be shredded in the 2011-13 budget.
“The reality of this recession is that it has dismantled many of the programs that I, and millions of others in the state, value. In any other time, I would not sign this budget,” Gregoire said.
That’s the budget reality that lawmakers have not fully grasped. There are few options available to them in an all-cuts budget.
Most of the budget – 60 percent – is off-limits to cuts. It’s the money set aside for basic education of students, the dollars to pay debt service and pensions, the judiciary and mandatory Medicaid and foster care programs. The magnitude of the budget shortfall means that lawmakers must cut $4.6 billion out of $14 billion for higher education, expanded basic education, general government, corrections and other social service programs.
Gregoire, for example, is proposing to eliminate cash grants and medical care for the Disability Lifeline program, which aids mostly childless adults who are unemployable but not receiving federal aid. She would eliminate the Children’s Health Program, which provides medical coverage for 27,000 children who could be in the country illegally. A state food stamp program for those who don’t qualify for federal food stamps also would be cut under the governor’s plan. And she has proposed the elimination of the Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized medical insurance to 66,000 poor Washingtonians.
When the Basic Health Plan is cut, 5,000 Thurston County residents will instantly lose their medical coverage. They will still get sick and be injured, but will have no medical insurance. They’ll show up at area hospitals and receive charity care – costs that will be passed on to those with insurance in the form of higher premium payments, co-pays and deductibles.
As the governor says, when the state cuts services, it merely shifts the financial burden elsewhere – to the pockets of taxpayers and to nonprofits who serve the poor and infirm.
At the meeting with editors and reporters, legislative leaders said they will look at alternatives to Gregoire’s proposed eliminations of state-funded health care for the poor and assistance for the disabled. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said that lawmakers will seek reforms within the programs to shave off costs, instead of completely cutting them.
And therein lies the steep learning curve the governor is talking about. Gregoire says given the severity of the budget cuts, there simply are programs the state can’t afford anymore – programs such as health care coverage for the poor.
That’s the sad reality that lawmakers will begin to grapple with starting Monday. We suspect that when they finally leave town with a balanced budget, it’s going to look an awful lot like the horrible scenario Gregoire outlined in her spending plan.
Between now and then, lawmakers are going to have their eyes opened to the severity of the budget problem and the limited number of solutions.