Over the last three years, Washington State has slashed $10 billion from its budget as revenues have fallen during the Great Recession. Cuts, cuts, cuts—to aid for the sick and elderly, to tuition assistance at public universities, to the state's "disability lifeline." Now, with a special session set to begin on November 28 because of a new $1.4 billion projected revenue shortfall, more cuts are probably coming.
Every department in the state is under orders from Democratic governor Chris Gregoire to offer up suggestions for hacking another 5 to 10 percent out of their planned spending. What would this newest round of budget slicing look like if implemented?
"It's going to hurt a lot of people," said Kathy Spears, spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), describing the potential impact of a 10 percent cut to her department. Having already lost $2.2 billion in funding over the last three years, shed 2,903 employees, and reduced services all over the state, DSHS recently sent the governor $866 million more in possible cuts, including the total elimination of the state's food assistance program (which would save $18 million). The food program serves about 13,000 legal immigrants who don't qualify for federal food assistance because of their alien status.
There's plenty more potential hurt, including DSHS's proposed closure of two wards at Western State Hospital that currently serve 52 patients with conditions such as traumatic brain injury or dementia (savings: $5 million) and reductions in foster care, juvenile rehabilitation, and substance abuse treatment programs (savings: $118 million).
Over at the Department of Corrections, Secretary Bernie Warner sent the governor a plan for $160 million in savings under a 10 percent cut scenario. This plan would involve the early release of about 1,000 offenders—some of them violent offenders—and the halting of community supervision for about 15,000 released offenders who still need monitoring.
"We're not endorsing this option," Warner said. "It has obvious public-safety implications." But that's what it would look like if his agency's budget—already slashed by about $270 million over three years, leading to the closure of three prisons and 1,200 eliminated positions—had to be cut 10 percent more.
Offered up for the budget knife by other state agencies: a $225 million hit to higher education, $240,000 in cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a $581,000 reduction in Hanford cleanup spending, a $96,000 reduction in spending to help salmon, and a "transfer" of responsibility for inspecting ski lifts that could save the state $60,000.
Oh, and then there's the $94,000 cut proposed by the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council—you know, the people who warn us when revenue is about to drop by, say, $1.4 billion. The agency warned Gregoire that a "10 percent cut will eliminate our agency, because we will not have the rudimentary necessities to fulfill our core mission." Agency director Arun Raha predicted "total disaster" if that were to come to pass.
It didn't have to be this way. Last November, voters could have approved an income tax on the 34,000 wealthiest Washingtonians, which would have brought in about $4.6 billion over two years. Or this spring, lawmakers could have mustered the political courage—and the required two-thirds majority—to raise taxes themselves. Or they could have closed some of the tax loopholes that cost Washington $6.5 billion annually (while benefiting Wall Street banks, plastic surgeons, and owners of private jets).
But none of this happened, so here we are.
What does Governor Gregoire make of these grim scenarios and dire warnings, delivered by state departments at her command?
At the moment, it seems, very little.
Gregoire's office said that because she's required to work within the existing revenue structure when making budget proposals, her November proposal to the state legislature will take the same approach as the "immoral" (her words) budget that she put forward this spring: all cuts.