Budget deal already faces legal threat

Labor union may challenge it in court

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

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The ink’s scarcely dry on the 2011-13 state operating budget legislative leaders unveiled Tuesday, but already one of the state’s largest labor unions has threatened to challenge it in court and at the polls this fall.

SEIU Healthcare 775NW, which represents more than 40,000 home care workers, will fight the budget deal for “slashing home care hours for those in need, suspending home care worker training requirements … and slashing health care benefits for thousands of those workers,” said union vice president Adam Glickman in a statement.

The budget cuts home care hours by an average of 10 percent, suspends a 2008 voter-approved initiative that requires home care workers to receive 75 hours of training, and eliminates a parity requirement, which will force workers to pay higher health insurance premiums, Glickman said.

The biggest cuts in the overall budget came in K-12 education ($1.14 billion) and employee compensation ($1.06 billion). The higher education budget, including financial aid, takes a $593 million hit, which will be partially offset by hefty tuition increases for college students over the next two years.

But cuts to health and social services programs will affect tens of thousands of vulnerable adults and children.

In all, the budget cuts $676 million from health care for the poor; $228 million from long-term care, developmental disabilities programs and mental health; and $274 million from other human services programs.

Asked at a Tuesday news conference whether the two-year budget preserves the safety net, state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, noted that although it eliminates cash grants for low-income disabled adults enrolled in the Disability Lifeline program beginning in October, it continues to provide health coverage and emergency shelter for homeless adults enrolled.

“We spent a lot of time trying to make sure we didn’t damage the low-income health delivery system,” Zarelli said. “We do not freeze eligibility for low-income children’s health.”

Budget writers preserved but reduced the size of the Basic Health program for the working poor to save $129 million. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposed to eliminate it. The legislators’ budget cuts the program by $102 million in state and other funds and continues a freeze on admissions to the program for the next two years.

About 37,000 people will be covered by the program in 2011-12. At its peak, Basic Health covered more than 100,000 low-income Washington residents.

The budget also reduces reimbursement rates to hospitals, suspends grants to community health clinics that provide primary care services to low-income clients, and cuts millions from maternity support and school-based medical services.

It cuts personal care hours for adult clients who need help with daily life skills by an average of 10 percent.

Zarelli said it was important to reform the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which provides cash grants to low-income families, “in a way that cuts down on fraud and abuse.”

“We were able to do more with less and still provide for a level of basic needs,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Spokane Democrat, said the bipartisan process the Senate followed this year taught her a lot about the perspectives of the minority party . She defended the budget as a “compassionate” spending plan that was worth the 30-day special session it took to complete it.

“A budget seems like a math problem, but we all know it’s really about people — our children, the elderly, the disabled, people who work in health care facilities and who care about the future of our state,” she said. “This budget did take longer, but we were able to put it together in a way that gives us more fiscal responsibility.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.