This is a pivotal week for state lawmakers. This is the week legislators must adopt a balanced budget for the remaining 15 months of the two-year budget cycle, filling a revenue shortfall of $2.8 billion in the process. Lawmakers already cut about $3.5 billion in spending last year to help close a $9 billion budget shortfall. They did not raise taxes.
The question this week is whether Democrats, who enjoy sizeable majorities in the House and Senate, can muster enough votes to both cut programs and raise taxes and get out of town by Thursday’s scheduled adjournment.
It’s a formidable challenge, but the outcome will have tremendous ramifications across the state of Washington.
We believe the final budget solution must include both program cuts and tax increases. The all-cuts budget, which Republicans seem to favor without offering up a budget proposal of their own, is inhumane and unacceptable.
Let’s remember what Gov. Chris Gregoire’s all-cuts budget would do to this state. It would:
• End subsidized health care coverage for about 65,000 low-income workers.
• Eliminate financial assistance programs for the chronically unemployed.
• Cut financial aid for 12,300 college students.
• Chop off 25 State Patrol positions.
• Eliminate housekeeping and offsite laundry services for 42,000 elderly or disabled clients.
• Eliminate of drug treatment and detox services for 3,600 people.
• Reduce reimbursement rates for foster parents by an average of 8 percent.
• Eliminate between 3,000 to 5,000 public school teaching positions.
• Cut an additional 1,527 jobs in state government and higher education, on top of the 3,200 positions already cut last year. Those are not bureaucrats in state offices in Olympia. They are nurses in the mental health ward, prison guards in Walla Walla, teachers in Spokane, driver license examiners in Yakima, park rangers, college instructors, agricultural inspectors, special education assistants, child protective services caseworkers, social workers — the list goes on and on. These are people serving the poor, the disabled, the disadvantaged and senior citizens. They serve the poorest of the poor, provide refuge for the lonely and care for sick. They serve those people who have nowhere else to turn.
And the above list of cuts is just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s focus today on just one sector of those proposed cuts — the implications for the uninsured in this state.
There already are about 900,000 uninsured people in this state. The all-cuts budget would eliminate the Basic Health Plan, the subsidized health insurance plan for the working poor. That would increase the number of uninsured people in Washington to more than 1 million — almost one in six Washington residents.
Think about the consequences. Where do those people go to get routine dental care and emergency medical care? The answer is that they go without or show up in a community health clinic or in a hospital emergency room, the most expensive setting for providing routine health care. And how do those costs get covered? People with insurance pay higher premium rates and co-pays to cover the costs to serve the uninsured.
Already, the community clinics that serve the poor are stretched to the max. What happens if they get another 100,000 uninsured Washingtonians showing up on their doorsteps in need of care? Sea-Mar, with its 46 clinics scattered around the state, including two in Thurston County, took $3 million in cuts when the 2009-11 budget was adopted last year. Yet, here in Thurston County, Sea-Mar saw a 91 percent increase in the number of medical clients — an increase from 1,000 to 1,941 patients. And 27 percent of those clients had no insurance.
These are not transients living on the streets. These are our friends and neighbors, the working poor who are struggling to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. There’s no money left in the monthly budget to pay the exorbitant costs of a self-insurance policy.
The clinics are literally the difference between life and death for countless Washington residents.
Yet if just one $11 million state grant to serve the uninsured is cut from the budget this year, we could see the closure of 10 medical clinics and six dental clinics, according to Rebecca Kavoussi, assistant vice president of governmental affairs for the Community Health Network of Washington.
While it’s easy to focus on the statistics, the real toll of budget cuts comes in human suffering.
Kavoussi tells the story of the single mother-to-be who suffered from an abscessed tooth. Without medical insurance, she did not receive prenatal care. She took larger and larger doses of aspirin to ease the pain in her mouth. When she got violently ill, the woman ended up in Swedish Hospital in Seattle where she delivered a premature baby and died from loss of blood during delivery. How do you put a price tag on the loss of that mother’s life? And what are the odds that the motherless, premature infant will need additional state assistance as the child matures into adulthood?
The “no new taxes” mantra is a simplistic solution to a complex problem. The right thing to do is to think of the lives and consequences behind the budget numbers and recognize that a financial crisis of this magnitude requires additional resources. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do.