OLYMPIA – Calling it “our time to show courage,” Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday urged Washington lawmakers to back her plan to create 20,000 jobs, boost unemployment benefits and use the economic crisis to forge a more nimble state government.
“When this recession ends, and it will end, we must be ready for a new economy,” Gregoire told applauding state legislators at the Capitol.
Her plans include tapping the state’s $4 billion unemployment insurance trust fund to boost weekly checks by $45 and using $200 million from the fund for a temporary tax break for businesses. Details on both plans, she said, would come out today.
The economic crisis is hitting the state hard, she said, creating “the most difficult and trying times maybe since the Great Depression.” Families are struggling with bills, businesses are trying to keep their doors open, and unemployment claims last month were up 75 percent over the same time last year.
But the state cannot just ride out the hard times and return to business as usual, Gregoire said. By planning well and making tough decisions now, she said, state government can “lay a platform for a better tomorrow.”
Shortly before her speech, hundreds of teachers, parents and school officials held a rally across the street calling on lawmakers to avoid cutting education spending.
“You have staked a righteous place to plant your feet and stand firm,” Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist told the crowd. If ever there were a time to invest in education, she said, it would be during a weak economy.
In the Capitol, Republicans praised Gregoire’s call for reforming government but said the root of the state’s budget woes are in years of overspending by majority Democrats.
“This is a financial wreck that she spent four years creating, and then to be shocked when it comes due is a little scary for me,” said state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. “We’ve been saying for three to four years this would be a wreck.”
Gregoire’s plan includes:
•A roads and transportation plan that Gregoire said will create 20,000 jobs and spawn a “green economy.” The state should tap Washington’s healthy unemployment fund to provide better benefits, the governor said. She also indicated that a tax break for business is in the works but didn’t provide details.
•A balanced budget that focuses on basic needs, such as protecting children; schools and colleges; public safety; the environment; and the economy.
•Reforming state government, shedding layers of bureaucracy in favor of a more responsive system.
Gregoire also called on Washington residents to look out for one another. She praised the Spokane residents who turned out recently to clear slush-clogged drains, the folks in Orting who fought floods with sandbags, and a Lewis County hotel that cut its room rates in half to accommodate flooded-out families.
She called on people to help food banks, volunteer at homeless shelters and contribute to utility programs that help low-income people pay their power and heating bills.
She invoked the memory of the last governor from Eastern Washington, former Cheney Mayor Clarence Martin. During the Great Depression, Martin followed President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to put people to work, she said. Among the public works projects at the time: the Grand Coulee Dam.
Gregoire, who last month proposed a no-new-taxes budget that would cut state services deeply during the next two years, said she didn’t do it lightly.
“The budget contains as much care and compassion as we could muster,” she told lawmakers. “But it still hurts real people, and with each cut I chose, I saw their faces.
“Let’s face it,” she continued. “We were dealt a terrible hand by forces beyond our control. We are forced to make unprecedented and difficult choices.”
The crisis, however, gives leaders a chance to revamp Washington’s government, she said. The state, for example, has some 470 boards and commissions. Nobody, she suggested, thinks the state needs even half that many advisers.
“We need to reform, and we will,” Gregoire said. “We need a lean, nimble state government serving our people in the 21st century.”
Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, took notes during the speech. “I’m excited to look at these things,” he said, “but the proof’s in the pudding.”