OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire could decide by next week whether to call a special session to cut the state budget or apply across-the-board cuts of as much as 4 percent to many areas of the state’s general fund budget.
She’ll talk with the Democratic and Republican leaders of both legislative houses on Thursday, seeking a commitment that they would get in and out of a special session in two to three days and “make the decision before Congress goes on recess.”
“I want to know tomorrow where they are,” Gregoire said of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Minority Leader Richard DeBolt. “I’ve had legislators saying don’t call uis back…They don’t think they can get it done.”
But Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the Senate Republican’s point man on budget matters, said Tuesday a special session would be much better than across the board cuts because it would allow the state to reduce the budget in a thoughtful way, get some long-term savings and create a reserve. The only reasons not to have a special session, Zarelli said, are “political expediency” and “legislative incompetency.”
State law allows a special session to last 30 days, but Gregoire said she wants them to come to Olympia with a plan they can pass in two or three days, then adjourn. To do that, Democrats, who hold large majorities in both houses, will need a consensus before they arrive, she said,
At the end of this year’s regular session, the supplemental budget was not finished and Gregoire called a special session, asking legislators to wrap it up in no more than seven days. They finished after midnight on the 30th day.
State law does not allow the governor to vary the cuts for different agencies, or single out some programs for elimination while sparing others from all cuts. “I think it’s a ridiculous tool,” Gregoire said.
She will urge the Legislature to change the law, but not in the special session. She will offer to give legislators a blueprint of budget cuts, asking Democratic leaders, “If I give you a proposed budget, could you come in and get it done?”
The state is facing a budget shortfall, in part because Congress has yet to approve extra money for Medicaid patients the states had been told early this year to expect. The anticipated $480 million was to be used as the state’s ending fund surplus, but no legislation with that money has made it through both chambers of Congress, and prospects are fading as members of Congress take heat for a ballooning federal deficit.
The state’s revenue projections also have dropped since the Legislature passed its supplemental budget in April. Without a special session, Gregoire can cut to eliminate the projected shortfall of more than $345 million to pay for existing programs and salaries, but can’t make cuts to leave additional money for a ending fund surplus.