Politics & Government

Budget cuts undo safety net and cover the waterfront

The "parade of horribles" started rolling again at the state Capitol today. Gov. Chris Gregoire outlined a two-year budget proposal that closes a $4.6 billion budget gap with deep cuts to nearly every state program in sight.

Here is the link to the Democratic leader's 40-page budget highlights. What follows below is a preview of my story for print editions tomorrow [Thursday] ...

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

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 first start to deal with a huge problem. But advocates of human services and public schools reacted with alarm.

Advocates said it shreds the safety net and harms education for children who deserve better. 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 with reporters and a standing-room-only crowd filling her conference room. "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 would see its funding for schools shrink by more than $1 billion and the safety net would vanish for thousands of residents.

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

State employees also are hit – facing higher medical costs of $61 per month in 2012 and 2013, and their pay is to be cut by 3 percent through furloughs that would begin in July, according to a labor agreement tentatively agreed to by three major unions on Tuesday. Teachers would see no cost-of-living pay raises.

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

Early critics of the plan ranged from AARP to unionized homecare workers and nurses that 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 a 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 that runs community clinics that serve most Basic Health patients and Disability Lifeline clients. She noted other cuts eliminate community health services grants as well as maternity support services by half and eliminate adult dental care for all but pregnant women or the disabled.