OLYMPIA – In Cheney, college administrators are going back into the classroom and teaching without extra pay.
At the Crosswalk teen homeless shelter in Spokane, staffers wonder if they’ll have to shut down for part of the year.
A few miles away, Jim Lippold worries about losing half the money for a program that gives frail elderly people a safe place to socialize, eat a meal and see a nurse.
“We can’t stop doing this,” said Lippold, who runs the elder program. “People are going to be very hurt, and I think literally will die.”
As budget writers in the statehouse huddle behind closed doors, thousands of people across Eastern Washington – college students, single moms, elderly people, workers and taxpayers – have a big stake in what they decide.
From the Palouse to the South Hill to the West Plains, people and groups that rely on state money are swapping rumors from Olympia and worrying. Some have cut back. Already, fewer nurses are visiting struggling new parents. There’s less local drug and alcohol treatment available. And help has shrunk for foster children.
But those early cuts pale in comparison with the multibillion-dollar budget shortfall lawmakers face.
In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire stunned advocates and lawmakers when she proposed deep cuts in health and social service programs, no raises for state workers, a halt to hundreds of millions of dollars slated for schools, and other changes.
Now, after several months of worsening economic news, lawmakers are trying to write an even leaner budget. Senate budget writers are planning on a 50 percent larger cut than the governor made.
“It’s extraordinarily stressful,” said Julie Graham, with the Spokane Regional Health District, which has already lost visiting nurses and a program to track the scattered medical records of foster children. “We end up losing good people who decide they’re going to find a new job before they get the axe next.”
Cuts ‘in all areas of state services’
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said lawmakers hope to start releasing details soon. But she warned that with an $8.5 billion budget shortfall – one of the worst in the nation – deep cuts are unavoidable.
“There will be reductions in all areas of state services that are not protected” by the constitution or laws, she said. (Basic education, for example, is spelled out in Washington’s constitution as the state’s highest duty.)
Many people who rely on the state budget – including lawmakers – were clearly hoping for more help from the recently approved federal stimulus plan. And some groups continue to hold out hope for a “Hail Mary” pass from Olympia. Lawmakers’ worst-case cuts are just “scenarios,” they’re hoping, or an “exercise.”
“It’s real,” she said.
She and other lawmakers have floated the idea of asking voters to blunt some budget cuts by approving a tax hike.
State tax officials calculate, for example, that adding a penny to the sales tax would raise $2.3 billion more over the next two years. Boosting the state’s business tax by 10 percent would mean an extra $600 million. Charging a nickel tax for a can of soda would mean nearly $280 million.
It’s unclear whether cash-strapped voters would say yes. If any tax plan is put on the ballot, Brown said, it would “buy back” some things that would otherwise be cut, like education or health care. But she said budget writers can’t count on voters approving it.
“I would never presume what the outcome of election would be in November,” she said.
Hard to pinpoint results
The near-universal argument in Olympia for protecting programs is that they save the state money. But that’s often hard to prove.
“With public health, a lot of times the things that happen are invisible,” Graham said. “You can’t pinpoint that one child who did not get abused because of a public health nurse, or an outbreak that didn’t happen.”
Republican lawmakers say the problem is simple: The state ramped up spending too much – $8 billion in four years – prior to the recession. They point out that the state is still expected to collect slightly more money over the next two years than it is now.
Republicans have proposed several billion dollars of cuts, including freezing all raises for state workers, doing away with state-paid all-day kindergarten, doing away with health coverage for illegal immigrant children. Democrats respond that they’re looking at all ideas for savings.
Watching and worrying
•In Spokane Valley, Children’s Home Society regional director Patt Earley worries about a program called Parents As Teachers. It sends staff to visit the homes of new parents, helping show them how to best care for young children. Among the hoped-for results: less child abuse and neglect.
“We can do a lot of good with a relatively small amount of money,” said Earley. “Parents don’t come preprogrammed to get it right.”
She worries about the group’s other services, like therapists for traumatized kids, or a county-funded children’s waiting room at the courthouse so kids don’t have to see parents in chains or fighting over a divorce. The county trimmed its share recently, she said. She worries about nursing cuts and mental health costs.
“These small cuts, when rolled together, suddenly you end up with a huge hole in the fabric of the social support network,” she said.
•At Eastern Washington University, acting President John Mason just ordered a textbook for the poetry class he’ll soon start teaching. He’s ordered all administrators with faculty appointments to teach, without extra pay.
The state’s colleges are targeted for some of the deepest cuts – up to 20 percent – proposed so far. Some of that can be offset with higher tuition, but Mason and other college presidents say that smaller work forces are all but inevitable.
“We’re all going to be working harder,” he said. “We understand that.”
Mason has mixed feelings at the prospect of a tax increase during a deep recession.
“If tax increases are not also coupled with responsible downsizing, efficiency, reorganization and other things the governor is pushing for, that’s just going to push the problem onto taxpayers, not solve the problem,” he said.
•Spokane Public Schools associate superintendent Mark Anderson said the district’s been pretty lucky so far. It lost a $30,000 grant for smaller classes. When the state cut another $450,000 in payments, the district was able to shift that burden to taxpayers. And a proposed cut of $250,000 in equipment for KSPS public TV – which operates under the district’s umbrella – was rescinded.
But “it’s really up in the air for next year,” he said. “Of course we’re worried.”
Under the governor’s proposed cuts, district finance director Neil Sullivan said, Spokane Public Schools would lose $7 million of its $300 million budget.
•On the campus-like grounds of Excelsior Youth Centers, on Spokane’s North Side, officials have already closed an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment ward for a dozen adolescents as part of nearly $400,000 in cuts the state ordered late last year, according to executive director Robert Faltermeyer. The remaining 22 beds are full.
Without such treatment, he said, “these kids will end up at street-kids programs, emergency rooms, or just living on the streets.”
•Marilee Roloff wonders what the budget cuts will hold for her group’s efforts to shelter people in Spokane. Volunteers of America runs Crosswalk, as well as the Hope House women’s shelter and apartments.
Crosswalk helps about 1,000 kids a year, offering meals, counseling and shelter. About a third of its budget comes from the state. Roloff is assuming she’ll lose that money in the new budget. That would likely mean ending the daytime programs or shuttering the shelter in all but the coldest months, she said.
“It frightens me to death,” she said. “I was here when we started Crosswalk and we didn’t have shelter. We closed the doors at 9 o’clock at night and watched those kids walk out into nothing.”
•Mary Ann Murphy worries about cuts hurting protections against child abuse and neglect. Partners for Families and Children runs a medical network in Spokane that specializes in diagnosing and helping prosecute abuse. In December, Murphy saw state cuts close a local early-intervention program. Early state cuts stalled a plan to open a local hospital clinic for foster kids. Similar cuts recently eliminated a counselor from Partners’ staff.
As government spends money on stimulus plans, she says, it shouldn’t neglect the human infrastructure.
“You could suspend road building,” she said. “I personally think that the kids should come first. Children can’t wait. Their little brains are either growing or atrophying.”
•At Providence Adult Day Health in Spokane, Jim Lippold looks out at his two centers and wonders if he’ll soon only have one.
“We hear rumors like ‘I hear you’re closing so maybe we shouldn’t refer folks to you,’.” he said.
In December, Gregoire proposed saving millions of dollars by shuttering such programs. Lawmakers say they’ll try to prevent that.
Adult day health is like day care for the elderly. They live in their own homes, often with family help, but centers like Lippold’s provide a place to socialize, get a meal and get medical care. It also gives their families a break.
The care costs about $7,000 per person each year, Lippold said. Without the center, he said, many would likely end up as state-paid clients in nursing homes, at an average of about $70,000 a year.
Lippold said staff are making that case to lawmakers. And praying.
“There are certain basic programs and services that I believe are a human right,” he said. “This kind of elder care is one of them.”