OLYMPIA — With the projected gap between income and expenses growing another $500 million to $5.1 billion, Gov. Chris Gregoire said the Legislature may be forced to eliminate popular programs they had hoped to merely trim.
They aren't going to be able to raise taxes, and they shouldn't try some of the budget “gimmicks” being suggested by some Democrats, such as adding revenues from a “25th month” into the 2011-13 budget or borrowing money by selling more bonds. Asked if she would veto any such plans, Gregoire replied: “Don't bring it to me.”
She would consider increasing gambling options, and even a proposal to license and regulate medical marijuana, which supporters say would bring in more revenue to the state. Saving money in the Corrections Department by allowing early release of more felons is “the last place I'd go.”
She also discounted a suggestion by Republicans the Legislature should reject contracts her staff has negotiated with state employees' unions for the coming biennium and demand more cuts in wages and benefits. The contracts already have a 3 percent wage cut after several years without cost-of-living increases, furloughs and increases in health care costs, proof that “public employees have stepped up to the sacrifice,” she said.
Rejecting the contracts could mean the state pays the higher wages and benefits rates of the current contracts for the first year, and a guarantee of a better deal in the second year of the budget cycle is “a hard promise to keep,” she said.
In her budget proposal in December, Gregoire proposed eliminating a series of state programs not required by federal law, including the Basic Health Program and the Disability Lifeline. Legislators balked, saying they'd rather reduce the programs by reducing the income levels that make a person or family eligible, and that system worked for a supplemental budget that patched the shortfall for the rest of this budget. Asked whether they'd be able to do that for 2011-13, Gregoire was doubtful: “I don't know. I think it's tough.”
An hour before her press conference, the Capitol Rotunda and hallways outside her office were filled with protestors demanding that the state cut tax breaks for businesses, and raise more tax revenue, rather than cut programs. She offered no hope that would be a strategy she'd follow.
“It's much easier said than done. How am I going to get a two-thirds vote?” she said. Closing tax exemptions are considered a tax increase, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses under an initiatives the voters passed in November.