Politics & Government

All sides brace for slashed budget

Gov. Chris Gregoire is set to release her cuts-only budget at 9 this morning in an attempt to bridge a projected $2.6 billion shortfall that keeps growing.

Deep cuts are expected for health care, education and a raft of other government programs, some of which could be eliminated. Gregoire, a second-term Democrat, has expressed discomfort about the cuts but said she is meeting her legal obligation to write a budget that does not rely on new revenue.

She plans to announce a package of tax, or revenue, proposals in early January.

“We’re bracing our folks for bad news,” said Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Olympia-based Washington Federation of State Employees, which is fighting off proposals to shut down the Maple Lane juvenile prison and other facilities.

“We’re saying, ‘This is not the end of the story.’ We believe the public is ready to consider revenue increases or closing tax loopholes as an alternative to the huge cuts that took place earlier this year. I think that is a lesson learned from the I-1033 campaign,” Welch added, referring to the voters’ rejection last month of Tim Eyman’s spending-caps initiative.

An advocacy coalition representing the elderly, public schools and health care groups plans a news conference at 10:30 a.m. today to outline the horrors they expect to see.

Human services lobbyists and some Democrats are toying with a variety of tax ideas that they think are needed. Republicans led by Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield and Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County are pushing to streamline government and hand over more state programs, such as liquor sales, to the private sector.

Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch and Republican Sen. Curtis King of Yakima already have introduced a measure, Senate Bill 6204, that would privatize liquor sales by 2012.

“We haven’t examined all the opportunities. I’m not ready to talk about revenues until we have exhausted all the opportunities for reducing this budget,” Alexander, the top GOP voice in the House on budgets, said Tuesday. “I expect the Democrats to come up with a revenue package – whether they do it (Wednesday) or wait until the governor gets back from her trip” to Copenhagen.

Zarelli, on the other hand, criticized the governor, saying her budget office is not telling the truth when it says state worker pay has been frozen. Zarelli said in his monthly “Budget Tidbits” column that the state is giving 5 percent “step,” or longevity, pay increases for workers under an agreement Gregoire worked out with state worker unions after the 2009 legislative session.

Zarelli estimated the cost of those step increases at $83 million, a figure the governor’s office later said is closer to $38 million. Zarelli said the increases were against the spirit of 2009 legislation meant to hold the line on worker pay and other spending, and he noted that Gregoire’s effort to hold down the worker share of health care costs might be driving a $140 million shortfall at the Public Employees Benefits Board.

Gregoire spokesman Glenn Kuper disputed the claim, saying that step increases were part of the state’s wage arrangements even before collective bargaining began in 2004. Kuper said agencies “are expected to absorb the cost of step increases” out of allocations they’ve received, so it does not add to the shortfall.

A coalition of health care and human services advocates – including Eldercare Alliance, the SEIU Healthcare Local 775 NW, and Arc of Washington – was bracing for ugly cuts in Gregoire’s budget. In the most recent legislative session, the group was unable to block cuts in services for the disabled and elderly who are cared for at home.

State Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, blasted Democratic leaders earlier this year for not making tax increases a more viable part of the budget discussion. He said he’s working with labor and human services groups to see what kind of proposal might be launched, and he’d like to see as much of the $2.6 billion shortfall covered by new revenue as possible.

But he said during a tour of the Thurston County Food Bank on Tuesday that he would be “impressed” if Democrats actually mustered votes to approve taxes for half of the gap.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, put out a statement last week saying, “Revenue is part of the equation to get all of us a fair shake, not just those on Wall Street.” He didn’t offer specifics.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

bshannon@theolympian.com

www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

On TV

The public-affairs network TVW will carry Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget announcement live at 9 a.m. today on Channel 23 in Thurston County.

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