The state's looming budget crisis has Gov. Chris Gregoire on edge. And the Legislature's unwillingness to take swift action on a series of proposed budget cuts aimed at stemming the tide of red ink is exacerbating the situation.
Last week Gregoire - once again - called for lawmakers to convene in Olympia this month to trim spending from the current budget, which runs through June. The sooner cuts can be made, the easier it will be to draft a budget for the next two-year budget cycle.
The most recent revenue forecast was very bleak. It showed the amount of projected revenue - mostly tax collections - would be down $5.6 billion (or 16.5 percent) from the original predictions. This means lawmakers are going to have to trim more than spending wish lists. Cuts are going to have to be made to programs and jobs are going to be lost.
Gregoire, who clearly understands the gravity of the situation, has outlined a proposal to reduce spending to balance the current budget.
But Democrats, who control the House and Senate, are apparently in no rush to take action, according to an Associated Press report.
Instead, legislative leaders are looking for different ways to patch the current state budget, the AP reported. Incoming House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said House Democrats prefer a full supplemental budget over the suggested program cuts.
"We want to include the public and all the stakeholder groups, and ensure that the product that we wind up with is something that everyone can live with," he said.
The problem, however, is nobody is going to walk away from these cuts feeling good. Few, if any, will feel they can live with the cuts - but they will have to.
That's the stark reality the state is dealing with. Lawmakers don't have the luxury of time. Every dime spent now is a dime that won't be available in the future.
Gregoire has it right. The spending has to be arrested right now so government will have the resources to provide needed services.
The governor's latest budget proposal is said to, as the AP reported, deal major blows to programs that Democrats and Republicans alike hold dear and effectively end some state services, at least in the short term. Among the drastic steps laid out in Gregoire's memo to legislators:
- Elimination of the Basic Health Program, which provides subsidized medical insurance to poorer Washingtonians.
- Wiping out cash grants and medical care for the Disability Lifeline program, which aids mostly childless adults who are unemployable but not receiving federal aid.
- Reduce levy equalization payments, which help K-12 school districts that have lower levels of property-tax support.
Is that too drastic? Perhaps.
But if lawmakers aren't willing to engage before the scheduled legislative session begins in January, it's possible - if not likely - the cuts they will be looking at could be even deeper.