Callaghan: Gregoire wants to share budget pain

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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When she unveiled devastating budget cuts one year ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire was resigned, though saddened. When she had to do it again last week, she was mostly just angry.

Angry at circumstances that force the latest round in an increasingly sickening series of cuts. Angry at a Wall Street she still blames for the Great Recession. Angry at Congress for dithering through the August debt-limit crisis and spooking an already skittish economy. But at one point she seemed to add a new target: local governments that haven’t been as hard-hit by revenue loses as has the state.

“Here’s the truth about our workforce,” she said before releasing a list of $2 billion in proposed cuts for the Nov. 28 special session. “We’ve reduced it by 10 percent since 2008. And as you can see from these options, we will obviously be reducing it more.

“Our remaining employees have taken furloughs, they have taken pay cuts, they are paying more for health care, they are paying more for pensions, rows and rows of cubicles are empty in state offices,” she said. “And guess what? The federal and local governments are now hiring away state employees.

“Let me repeat that. The federal and local governments are now raiding my state employees.”

I asked staffers for some examples. A chief information officer for a state agency was hired by King County for a $115,000 pay raise. That person’s assistant went, too, for a 50 percent hike. Pierce County hired a chief financial officer from the state for a $20,000 raise. Tacoma hired a chief financial officer away for a 20 percent raise and more vacation. Seattle hired three state tax auditors for raises between 20 and 25 percent. A senior information technology worker left the state for a 15 percent raise with the Port of Tacoma.

State suffers more

Gregoire is beyond seeking sympathy. She surely realizes that many residents of the state continue to view the bureaucracy as a part of the problem. But she doesn’t think residents realize that state workers have suffered more than other governments’ employees.

State employment security surveys back her up. The state workforce has fallen by about 8 percent since the start of the recession — 5,700 jobs. The colleges have lost another 5,200 positions.

During the same period, local governments have lost 800 jobs — one-half of 1 percent.

Just two days before the governor released her list , Tacoma council members were briefed on a $26 million shortfall between expected revenues and current budget levels. During the meeting, one member said she’s asked by politicians from other levels of government how Tacoma has avoided painful cuts. “They ask, ‘What’s your secret?’ ” Councilwoman Lauren Walker said.

Maybe it was good management. Maybe it was overly optimistic projections that are finally catching up with the city. Whatever the explanation, it has enabled Tacoma to avoid layoffs, sweeping cuts to services and increases in taxes.

No more. And problems for Tacoma and most other local governments will be made more difficult because Gregoire endorsed cutting $91 million in money shared with cities and counties — about one- third of that liquor profits and taxes. Is there a connection between the proposal and Gregoire’s sense that the sacrifice isn’t being shared?

Yes and no.

“I can’t think of another state that hasn’t reduced local revenue sharing,” said Gregoire budget chief Marty Brown. Yet until now, Washington has not, and counties including King and Pierce and cities such as Seattle and Tacoma haven’t faced cuts like the state. Brown explained it this way: “Because we keep giving them big dough. So we’re not giving it to them this time.”

The Legislature will have the last word. But those in local government might want to steer clear of dangling big raises in front of key state employees — at least until the special session is over.