Gov. Chris Gregoire rejected new Republican calls for a special legislative session in early December to deal with the growing budget shortfall, despite her prediction it might hit $2.5 billion after Thursday's revenue forecast.
Gregoire, a Democrat in her second term, said the budget crisis is so dire the state’s safety net is at risk as she tries to cut as much as $2 billion from a smaller and smaller part of the budget.
Constitutional limits that protect basic education, state debt service and pensions put close to 59 percent of the budget off-limits, and the more than $3 billion in federal stimulus money for public schools, universities and welfare aid came with strings that put other programs also off-limits. The result: Cuts must come out of just $9.3 billion of the $31 billion operations budget adopted in April, Gregoire said.
“This is not something you do overnight. It’s something you do thoughtfully,” she said, rejecting Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli’s renewed calls for a special session in early December when lawmakers are in town. Gregoire contended special sessions would cost money and that budget-writers in the Legislature that she’s talked to “haven’t gone in-depth” on the budget and don’t want to do anything piecemeal.
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Gregoire, who spoke during one of her periodic briefings with reporters at her Capitol office, said she has not made a decision whether to submit one budget in December, or whether to add a second one that includes new revenue. She has heard from hospitals and nursing homes that have suggestions for raising funds and gaining larger federal matches for health-care spending.
But those proposals would not apparently help close the gap the governor is looking at. She said the gap is huge, and puts unprotected programs at serious risk of cuts – including any discretionary programs fully funded by state dollars. Examples include the Basic Health Plan, which after budget cuts this year is projected to give subsidized health insurance to about 65,000 low-income working adults.
Another program facing threats of cuts is the General Assistance Unemployable program that gives cash stipends of about $339 a month and health care to people who are disabled or in some way unable to work. That program has been retooled into a managed-care health-delivery system; however, that is supposed to save $40 million in the next 18 months, unless it is scrapped.
Financial aid to college students is also at serious risk.
The governor said that to cut $2 billion, the state could eliminate all community colleges, close the Department of Commerce and close the Department of Revenue, and it would still only eliminate $1.72 billion. Cutting all state funds for the University of Washington and Washington State University would save $1 billion.
And closing the Department of Corrections would be $1.6 billion.
She did not advocate doing any of those things.