State Workers

$516M in state cuts coming

The Washington State Capitol in Olympia. (Tony Overman/The Olympian)
The Washington State Capitol in Olympia. (Tony Overman/The Olympian)

Cuts to health benefits for the poor. Layoffs of state employees. Bigger classes in community colleges.

If those scenarios sound familiar, they should: Washington state government has made billions of dollars worth of cuts to balance the state budget, even with extra help from increased taxes and federal aid.

Get ready for another round. With the economy stagnant and tax collections below what was projected just three months ago, a gloomy prediction Thursday by state forecasters likely will force Gov. Chris Gregoire to cut $516 million from the budget. That’s 6.3 percent of each affected agency or program.

Most of the cuts, more than $280 million, will fall on health and human services.

“That’s everybody. Kids, seniors, the whole thing,” said Walt Bowen, president of the Washington State Senior Citizens’ Lobby. “This is really going to hurt.”

The pain won’t be over when this round of cuts is made. The latest forecast sets up a nearly $4.5 billion shortfall for the next biennial budget beginning in 2011, which will fall in the laps of the state lawmakers voters elect Nov. 2.

Voters will also decide whether to put up a major hurdle to more tax increases, as Initiative 1053 would do. Approving the measure would renew the requirement for a two-thirds majority of lawmakers to raise taxes.

That and other initiatives to lower taxes and privatize government services have the potential to force larger budget cuts next year.

Gregoire said she’s “not under any illusion” that I-1053 will fail.

“It’ll be an interesting discussion whether the Legislature believes we can and should look at new revenue,” she said from Shanghai, part of an 11-day trip to Asia focused on international trade.

Ahead of the election, lawmakers are staying away from Olympia. Democrats, who control the Legislature, say it would take too long for them to reach agreements on budget cuts.

“The fact is, the current budget situation clearly demonstrates that state government must be rescaled to fit the new fiscal reality. It will take more than just a quick special session to do that right,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp said in a joint statement.

Republicans like Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, say the Legislature should come back into session now to grapple with the problem. He said by the time lawmakers can make last-minute changes to the budget when their regular session starts in January, they’ll have only a few months left in the year for their decisions to take effect.

“We’ve made the problem that much more difficult,” he said.

While lawmakers could pick and choose what programs to cut, the governor can make only across-the-board cuts.

That means the cuts over the next few months will fall equally on every kind of state spending, except for a few protected ones like basic education and pensions.

“I don’t think you can preserve the safety net with across-the-board cuts,” said Carol Dotlich, president of the Washington Federation of State Employees, who is fearful that patients will be moved out of institutions like Western State Hospital and into communities.

Gregoire said it would be hard to avoid closing another prison, such as Larch Corrections Center in southwest Washington.

Patients stand to lose services such as hospice care under Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor, she said.

Small agencies like the Public Disclosure Commission, the election watchdog with 23 employees, have to cut as big a percentage of their budgets as larger ones. PDC interim director Doug Ellis said he plans to cut a vacant technology position, reduce two full-time employees to part time and cut hours for a part-time employee.

Classes at community colleges are likely to get bigger, said Chris Reykdal, deputy executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826