Gregoire vetoes cuts to auditor

Gov. Chris Gregoire used her veto pen Tuesday to spare the state auditor’s efficiency-audit program from a $29 million budget cut.

She vetoed more than 50 items in the $31.4 billion operating budget for the two-year period that begins July 1. Her budget surgeries left the state with about $81 million less than lawmakers intended – and about $741 million overall – to weather future economic storms.

That budget contains more than $4 billion in reductions to programs and is expected to eliminate 7,000 to 8,000 jobs in state government agencies, universities and local public schools. People who will lose their jobs include more than 3,000 teachers and 2,000 state workers, said Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, who helped write the budget.

The budget also pushes nearly 40,000 people off the state’s subsidized Basic Health Plan insurance program, effective July 1; cuts money for community mental health programs; and reduces payments to nursing homes and other state-paid vendors.

But in an agreement reached with state Auditor Brian Sonntag, Gregoire cut bill language that would have transferred $29 million from the voter-approved performance-audits program, which gets a percentage of state sales tax revenues every year.

The performance-audit program, which measures government efficiency, was expected to have about $16 million in unspent money at the end of June, and Democratic Rep. Kelli Linville said budget writers were just trying to spread the pain of the cuts by taking that unspent money and a bit more.

But Gregoire vetoed the cut as well as language that would have required the auditor’s future funding to partly rely on savings from his audit recommendations. Gregoire also secured a promise from Sonntag to hold $15 million of the funds in reserve for lawmakers to siphon away the next time they are in session.

“We can continue through with the oversight the citizens expected with the initiative they passed,” Sonntag said after the bill signing.

He said the extra $14 million lets him go ahead with a broad review of state government to find inefficiencies, and Gregoire called it a “fair, responsible compromise” that lets the auditor continue his work.

Initiative activist Tim Eyman presented Gregoire with a black and red T-shirt that bore the logo of his Initiative 900 campaign, which expanded the performance-audit program and gave it a share of state sales tax revenues. Eyman said Gregoire did the right thing for taxpayers.

Other vetoes were less controversial. More than a dozen were made because legislation supporting the budget moves did not pass into law, and others were designed to give agencies more flexibility, the governor said.

One veto lets the Department of Social and Health Services keep $32 million for medical services; another blocks the transfer of $22 million from then state convention center account. The latter veto also blocks a $9 million cut in tourism funding, which Gregoire said is key to put the state in position to reap financial rewards from the 2010 winter Olympics in neighboring British Columbia.

Another veto dealt with the Washington State Patrol’s King Air planes, which are used to carry the governor and other state leaders around the state.

The veto lets the plane expenses be charged to the State Patrol’s aviation budget, Gregoire’s veto message said.

Gregoire’s budget spokesman, Glenn Kuper, said that the budget lets the State Patrol keep both of its planes, but it authorizes the sale of the Department of Natural Resources’ plane.

The $31.4 billion operating budget will be felt in the coming months, Gregoire warned. It includes deep cuts in public education, colleges and health care programs, but Gregoire, Tom and Linville all said the cuts go lightest on public schools.

Republican lawmakers, who largely voted against the budget, did not join Gregoire at the podium for the bill signing.

GOP Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia slammed the Democrats for what he called unsustainable spending that makes too much use of one-time fund sources.

Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams of Olympia criticized the budget, too, and said it was time for lawmakers to start holding public forums about tax reform.

“Come July 1, an all-cuts budget’s cruelty will be evident to all,” Williams wrote in an e-mail.

State government reporter Adam Wilson contributed to this report.