Political writers tend to characterize the budget battle in Olympia as yet another partisan struggle between Republicans and Democrats, but as in most wars, it's the civilian noncombatants who inevitably suffer the most devastating casualties.
"If it wasn't for Disability Lifeline, I would've been dead," says William Cruz, 50, about a state health-care program that Republican budget writers are fighting to eliminate. After losing his job at a Seattle software company following the dot-com bust, Cruz moved into a low-rent University District apartment, unaware that it was infested with toxic black mold. Within six weeks, the symptoms set in—chronic pain, weakness, fatigue, depression, and, most debilitating, dementia. Cruz soon found himself homeless and out on the streets.
"I couldn't feed or clothe myself, let alone work," recalls Cruz, who still suffers from cognitive deficits more than a decade later.
Ultimately, state social workers noticed Cruz's erratic behavior while he was waiting in line for food stamps and sent him to a psychiatrist who diagnosed his condition. It was the now-threatened Disability Lifeline program that paid for and coordinated the treatment and counseling crucial to his partial recovery. "The people at DSHS saved my life," insists Cruz, "and they did it again and again."
So why is a life-saving program on the chopping block?
The biggest sticking point between the two budgets that have passed in Olympia—a Democratic budget from the house and a GOP budget in the senate—is the Republicans' refusal to accept a Democratic accounting maneuver. Originally proposed by Governor Chris Gregoire, the Dem budget would defer payments owed to public-school districts by just one day, from June 30 to July 1, 2013. This 24-hour delay has zero impact on public-school finances, but it shifts $330 million in recorded costs from the current balance sheet into that of the next biennial budget.
And my, what a difference a day makes.
Decrying this one-day delay as an irresponsible "gimmick," and with the aid of three wayward Democrats, Republicans seized the senate floor in a procedural coup on March 2 to pass their austerity budget that includes cutting $42.7 million from K–12 education (costing schools an additional $6.2 million in matching funds for Readiness to Learn, a highly successful program targeting at-risk students), $30.3 million from community colleges and four-year universities, and $30 million in college financial aid (a 10 percent cut at a time of skyrocketing tuition costs).
But the most devastating cut in terms of pure human suffering has got to be the Republicans' total elimination of the Disability Lifeline program, slicing $41 million from the supplemental budget while sacrificing an additional $44 million in federal matching dollars in the process.
That's 20,000 disabled low-income Washingtonians like Cruz—many of them veterans, and most of them with mental disabilities—thrown off the health-care rolls and into our streets, our prisons, and our emergency rooms. "It doesn't make sense," says Rachael DeCruz of Washington Community Action Network, the state's largest grassroots community organization. With millions already cut from the Basic Health plan and community clinics, there will be few low-cost options left for our state's most vulnerable citizens. "This will only increase state costs in the long run," says DeCruz.
Even the Republicans' chief budget writer, Senator Joe Zarelli (R-Ridgefield), appeared to acknowledge that the cuts had gone far enough. "I'll be working to keep K–12 education and higher education and services to our most vulnerable residents whole—they've seen enough reductions already," Zarelli promised as recently as February 16 in a statement following the release of the latest revenue forecast. Yet just three weeks later, he's ramming a budget through the senate that slashes another $100 million from education while entirely eliminating the Disability Lifeline program.
And even that's not enough to balance Zarelli's ledger. In addition to dozens of other cuts, the Republican budget includes its own gimmicks: sweeping millions of dollars from an account dedicated to cleaning up hazardous waste sites into the general fund and, most egregiously, skipping a $133 million pension payment, a proposal that threatens the solvency of the pension fund and will cost many millions more over the years in lost appreciation.
Now, given the partisan gridlock between two incompatible budgets, the governor has called the house and senate back for a 30-day special legislative session. But while Republicans argue that we simply cannot afford the programs they propose to cut, the real question is, can we afford to live without them?
"When legislators think about cutting something, they cut it," complains Molly Firth of Community Health Network of Washington. "But they don't take into account the costs that will come later on." She argues that beyond just saving people's lives, Disability Lifeline has produced "phenomenal savings" to taxpayers through lower rates of arrest, homelessness, hospitalization, emergency room visits, and in-patient psychiatric care.
That's a fiscal argument that trumps the moral one, especially when all the Democrats need to pass their more compassionate and forward-thinking budget is a single additional vote in the senate from either a wayward D or a truly moderate R.
As for Cruz, he's grateful to be a living example of how well these programs work. After several years on Disability Lifeline, state social workers helped him through the arduous process of qualifying for permanent disability through Social Security and Medicaid. He's now living with family in Spokane as he continues to get his life and health back in order.
"I used to make the companies I worked for millions of dollars," says Cruz proudly. "And I hope to be a productive member of society again."
It's a hope others like him won't enjoy if Republican budget writers have their way.