Politics & Government

Lawmakers' reactions to Gregoire's deep-cutting budget mostly positive

Gov. Chris Gregoire talks about her budget plan as she stands next to a chart showing the state's projected budget deficit at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. (AP File Photo)
Gov. Chris Gregoire talks about her budget plan as she stands next to a chart showing the state's projected budget deficit at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. (AP File Photo) The Associated Press

A “parade of horribles” began rolling today at the state Capitol when Gov. Chris Gregoire outlined a two-year budget proposal that would close a $4.6 billion revenue gap with deep cuts to nearly every state program.

Public schools, hospitals, mental health programs, health insurance for children, welfare grants for the poor, two state history museums and state parks were among the proposed cuts.

The plan, which includes $3 billion in outright cuts, drew a swift and mostly positive reaction from state lawmakers – many of whom saw it as a good start to deal with a huge problem. But advocates for human services and public schools reacted with alarm. Some said it shreds the safety net and harms education for children who deserve better.

State employees will take a substantial hit – facing higher medical costs of $61 a month in 2012 and 2013 and a 3 percent pay cut through furloughs that would begin in July, according to a labor accord tentatively agreed to by three major unions Tuesday. Teachers would see no cost-of-living pay raises.

Gregoire’s proposal would eliminate an estimated 2,200 full-time jobs in general government and higher education and an estimated 1,600 in public schools, for a total of 3,800 jobs over the next two years, according to the state Office of Financial Management. That would be on top of about 6,000 full-time public-sector jobs lost since 2008 and bring the total of jobs lost for the two budget cycles to about 10,000, OFM spokesman Glenn Kuper said.

Even Gregoire said it was a budget she would not sign into law “in any other time,” and she choked back tears at one point talking with disbelief about having to be the one making the cuts.

“It’s not a budget I ever imagined I would stand before you and present,” Gregoire said in a news conference. “This budget does not represent my values, and I don’t think it represents the values of this state.”

If reluctant lawmakers agree on the Democratic leader’s spending priorities next year, the state will see its funding for schools shrink by more than $1 billion; the safety net will vanish for thousands of residents.

State budget director Marty Brown said it is the first biennial budget that is smaller than the previous one. The nation’s deep recession has knocked billions of dollars from the next budget cycle, and voter passage of Tim Eyman’s initiative limiting tax increases gives budget writers few options but to cut.

Gregoire’s proposed cuts get rid of numerous programs – including the already-shrunken Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized health insurance to 66,000 people, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which subsidizes coverage for 27,000 children. Other cuts hit thousands of people who rely on community health clinics, the Disability Lifeline, welfare cash grants and early-childhood education – as well as mental health care, aid to food banks, and food stamps for about 14,000 people.

She also would cut the welfare allotment to families by 15 percent and eliminate a program that provides home visits by nurses to at-risk families, said Laurie Lippold, an advocate for children’s services.

Gregoire proposed closing the McNeil Island prison, the Maple Lane juvenile prison at Grand Mound and state history museums in Tacoma and Spokane.

Colleges also would be cut, and tuition will go up at colleges and universities if lawmakers agree with Gregoire’s proposal to give institutions new authority to make the increases. The tuition increases would amount to 9 percent a year at regional schools such as The Evergreen State College, 10 percent at community colleges and 11 percent at the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University.

Gregoire said state need grants for college students would be increased.

She also would cut the presidential primary funding for 2012, saving $10 million, and proposed selling 12 state buildings for potentially $86 million.

Critics of the plan included the AARP, unionized home-care workers, and nurses who work on the front lines dealing with mentally ill homeless people and those who pour into emergency rooms for medical care they cannot afford on their own.

And their reactions were reminiscent of former Washington Public Employees Association leader Eugene St. John’s description of budget cuts a decade ago as “a parade of horribles.”

“The governor made choices that will literally cost people their livelihoods and even their lives,” warned Rebecca Kavoussi of the Community Health Network of Washington, which runs community clinics that serve most Basic Health patients and Disability Lifeline clients. She said other cuts would eliminate community health services grants, reduce maternity support services by half and eliminate adult dental care for all but pregnant women or the disabled.

In a statement, Kavoussi added: “We urge the Legislature to make more humane cuts and fiscally responsible choices, using a litmus test to prioritize cuts. Are low-income, vulnerable populations disproportionately affected? Will people become disabled. Will people die?”

Nurses and home-care workers with the Service Employees International Union stood in vigil outside Gregoire’s office with 10 empty wheelchairs representing the vulnerable and disabled who have been hurt by cuts already taken and will suffer more.

“These are devastating cuts,” said home-care worker Deborah Osborn of Tacoma, who faces a reduction in the hours she can work for clients, who also are going to get four to 22 fewer hours of help each month with food preparation, bathing and medications. “We need everybody to understand that fewer hours is just less care Fewer hours is fewer showers.”

Gregoire acknowledged that cutting home-care assistance to shut-in elderly and disabled residents creates a risk of higher public costs later, if the clients must move to nursing homes.

“But that is where the public and community must help,” Gregoire said.

Gregoire said she ruled out any kind of tax package for the November ballot next year, explaining that voters sent a message on Nov. 2, including their refusal to pay a new soda-pop tax of 2 cents a can.

But her proposal relies on many new fees – including one that the state parks commission or lawmakers could adopt to pay for parks. Many of the fees would require approval by lawmakers on a simple majority vote.

The budget calls for cutting $47 million in general-fund revenue from the parks system, which now gets $67 million, and cutting it loose long term to find other means of funding operations, Gregoire said. The Legislature’s program set up a few years ago asking drivers to pay an optional fee when they renew auto licenses does not bring in anywhere near the amount that is being cut, according to the governor.

Other fees in Gregoire’s “user pays” approach would hit “those who apply for water rights, commercial fishing licenses, and other natural resources permits” for $11 million, she said.

Top lawmakers said Gregoire had offered a good starting point for negotiations in the Legislature after it convenes Jan. 10 for 105 days.

“Today, the governor has provided the basis and set the terms for the upcoming budget debate in the Legislature,” said incoming Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

“Her proposal includes some bold moves that are necessary if we’re going to break the cycle of unsustainable budgets moving forward,” Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, his party’s top voice on the budget in the House, said in a statement.

“We will be carefully considering this proposal in the days and weeks to come,” added House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “But any of the choices we make will have a serious negative impact on the social structure of our state, the education of our children, and the future of our economy. We are out of good options.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688bshannon@theolympian.comwww.theolympian.com/politicsblog