Advocates rail against proposed budget cuts

Dec 16, 2010

A hue and cry has erupted in response to Washington Governor Chris Gregoire’s proposal to slash billions more in anticipated state spending. The Democrat Wednesday unveiled her plan to close a $4.6 billion budget shortfall.

Gregoire unveiled her budget proposal in a room packed with reporters, lobbyists legislative and budget staff and a handful of unionized homecare workers. If you think of state government as a tree, Gregoire was about to take a chainsaw to many of its limbs. She said her budget:

“uses the word ‘eliminate’ about 80 times, 80 times we say eliminate and that results in $1 billion in cuts.”

Health care for more than 100,000 Washingtonians: eliminated. Money to reduce elementary school class sizes: gone. Funding for state parks: zeroed-out. Food stamps for 14,000 poor people: canceled. And the list goes on. Overall, Gregoire’s budget calls for a total of $4 billion in spending reductions:

This budget does not represent my values. Nor do I believe it represents the values of the people of this great state,” says Gregoire.

But Gregoire says she has no choice but to offer the legislature a balanced budget. Afterward, advocates for teachers, kids, the poor offered one-word reactions.

Robin Zukoski - “Heart-breaking, ”

Colleen Malone - "Horrified.”

Susan Tekola - “Tragedy.”

Mary Lindquist, head of the state teachers’ union - “Ugly”

“It is likely now that we will see kindergarten classrooms of 25 to 30 students while meanwhile in Illinois and New Jersey they have class sizes of 17. That’s just wrong,” says Lindquist.

Remember those unionized homecare workers? Afterward, they were out in the hallway staging an empty wheelchair demonstration. Gayle Briere takes care of a sister with Down Syndrome. It’s her full-time job and she worries about paying the bills if the state cuts her paid hours:

“The empty wheelchair represents the person I won’t be able to take care of and whether I’m going to be able to keep her or not.”

The Governor says faith and charity groups will have to step into the breach as state services are reduced or eliminated. But nurse Susan Tekola doesn’t buy it. She works at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle:

“I took care of a patient just last week, had a massive stroke because he couldn’t afford the blood pressure medication, so now he’s on a feeding tube, he’s got a breathing tube and he’s got a tube coming out of his brain to drain off his fluid and you think the community is going to be able to take care of those kinds of prices?”

So what’s the alternative? Some advocates are already using the T-word, taxes. They want to go after corporate tax breaks or even raise taxes – and send a package out to voters for approval.

But Gregoire says Washington voters made it clear in November they’re not open to that idea:

“I’ve gotten the message. The only message I have before me is an all-cuts budget and I am honoring the people of the state of Washington and what they have told me.”

Republican lawmakers agree. But even they don’t like some of the Governor’s cuts. Joe Zarelli is the Republican lead on the budget in the state Senate. He’d like to save the Basic Health Plan:

“To throw something out simply because it’s too expensive misses the point of whether it out to be a priority and find a way to do it better.”

Zarelli would get much tougher about who qualifies for Basic Health and weed out illegal aliens from the program. Majority Democrats were more muted in their response to the Governor’s budget. They clearly hope to avoid some of the more draconian cuts.

And while the governor gets the first crack at the budget, ultimately the legislature writes the state’s two-year spending plan and sends it to the governor for her signature – and that’s still several months away.