Gregoire unveils proposed cuts to state budget

Health plan, higher ed, levy equalization targeted



OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire took a first step Thursday toward dealing with the state’s $2 billion budget shortfall, releasing a bevy of proposed cuts that leaves almost nothing in state government untouched.

But even legislative leaders in her own party are skeptical of her plan, which includes eliminating the state’s health care program for the poor, trimming another 15 percent from higher education and reducing state help to poor school districts by half.

“This is actually writing a budget all over again,” said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the upper chamber’s budget lead. The Legislature will convene a special budget session in late November. “I think it will give us a head start. I don’t think we’ll get done before Hanukkah and Christmas.”

The House’s budget writer, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, wasn’t any more optimistic.

“Everything on this list I didn’t have the votes for last year,” Hunter said, after looking at the governor’s budget handout.

Gregoire also seemed to leave the option open for a tax package, something she had refused to do earlier this year.

“These cuts are now through the muscle and into the bone,” the Democratic governor said at news conference, and added she wants lawmakers to finish work on this supplemental budget in one month, and then come back in January for the regular 60-day session to focus on job creation.

Earlier this year, lawmakers needed a regular and special session, a total of 120 days, to finalize a budget that reduced spending by $4.6 billion. They also rejected many Gregoire program eliminations, such as the one cutting Basic Health.

Gregoire said she’ll release her final supplemental budget proposal after the Nov. 17 revenue forecast.

As the nation’s and state’s economies continue to struggle from the Great Recession, the governor said Olympia has shed around $10 billion in spending in the past three years, adding that now lawmakers must cut $2 billion from the $8 billion in state money that’s not protected by the Constitution or by contracts.

“I have to confront the reality, the people of our state are not spending. Businesses are not hiring,” she said.

The governor struck a populist stance in laying out her proposed budget, largely blaming the state’s financial problems on Wall Street.

“These choices were made out of necessity due to a drop in consumer confidence brought on by actions on Wall Street, inaction by Congress and the European debt crisis. The list of options I’ve presented hurts,” she said. “This is not what I signed up for when I started as a caseworker 40 years ago. But it’s what the world economy handed our state and our country.”

In a statement, Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield used a bipartisan tone, thanking Gregoire for releasing her ideas early, and said the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are working to close the gap.

“I agree with the governor when she says government cannot do it all. It will be up to the Legislature to decide what government should and should not be doing, and at what cost to taxpayers. We managed to accomplish that earlier this year, in a bipartisan manner, and that is my goal again,” he said.

Murray said that lawmakers will pass a “draconian” budget and then ask voters to fill the cuts with taxes.

Cuts to social services totaled around $815 million.

The trims include eliminating the Basic Health plan, which provides medical care for the state’s poor. The cut would affect 35,000 people and save the state $48 million. Gregoire also wants to cut off medical services to 21,000 people in the state’s Disability Lifeline program, which serves low-income adults, to save $110 million.

Cuts to education represent another big chunk of Gregoire’s options, totaling more than half a billion dollars. She wants to reduce levy equalization for poor school districts by 50 percent, saving about $150 million, and increase class sizes by two students to bag $137 million. She also wants to take $166 million in state money from colleges and universities.

“This disinvestment in our future generations undermines the future of Washington State. I will vigorously oppose these cuts at every level,” said Washington State University President Elson Floyd.

The president of the state’s largest teachers union said they will oppose more layoffs and more classroom overcrowding.

WEA President Mary Lindquist says enough is enough — now is the time for new revenue not more cuts.

“Washington’s students need a quality education more than big businesses need tax breaks,” she said.