August 12, 2010 in City, Region

Gregoire announces $51M in cuts to state welfare

Rachel La Corte Associated Press
 

OLYMPIA — Fewer people will qualify for a state welfare program that provides child care subsidies and help finding a job under cuts announced by Gov. Chris Gregoire today.

She said that at least $51 million is being cut from WorkFirst, the state’s welfare-to-work program, because while enrollment continues to rise, matching funds from the federal government have remained flat since the 1990s.

The program, started in August 1997, helps low-income families with support and training in getting and keeping jobs, offering things like monthly stipends and child care subsidies.

Most of the cuts will come from granting fewer extensions to families who reach the five-year time limit and lowering the income eligibility for the child care subsidy. Other cuts will be made to employment, education and training services.

Starting February 2011, about 5,500 families will be kicked out of WorkFirst, and will lose a monthly stipend ranging from $453 for a family of two to $762 for a family of five, in addition to a host of other benefits, including the child care stipends.

Starting Oct. 1, the eligibility rules for child care stipends will be increased, meaning that about 2,500 families will lose that assistance.

Department of Social and Health Services spokesman Thomas Shapley said that at a minimum, people will be notified by mail in advance of any changes in their status, eligibility or benefits. He noted that they will not lose other services, such as food stamps or medical coverage that they otherwise qualify for.

Advocacy groups decried the cuts, and said that removing poor families from the program will cause them to seek out social services through different state programs.

“This seems like a really tough time to put families on the street,” said Robin Zukoski, a staff attorney for Columbia Legal Services, which provide civil legal aid to low-income people. “These families are not going to just disappear. They’re going to go into the homeless shelters.”

DSHS director Susan Dreyfus said that the agency would immediately start working with the families that will be affected to ensure they have a plan come February.

“This becomes a shared responsibility between government, communities and families,” she said. “It’s going to take all of us to pull together and help these families out.”

Gregoire also said that across-the-board cuts to other state programs are all but certain in October.

Gregoire said she has told state agencies to prepare for cuts of 4 to 7 percent effective Oct. 1, but said she’ll know firmer numbers after the state’s updated revenue forecast in September. Based on recent bleak tax collections that show less money going into the state’s coffers, she’s preparing for the worst.

Heading into January’s 105-day legislative session, Gregoire said lawmakers will need to quickly pass a supplemental budget cutting $500 million from the last six months of this year. The 2011-2013 budget will need to cut 10 percent in order to prepare for an expected $3 billion shortfall.

“State government, out of necessity, will need to be smaller,” Gregoire said.

Gregoire said even with the influx of more than $540 million in federal dollars coming to the state, the state’s reserves have dwindled to $72 million.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed a $26 billion bill that sends money to cash-strapped states, including Washington. Washington will received $338 million in Medicaid match money, and an additional $205 million for education jobs. State officials are still working out how they are allowed to use the education money, but the health care money prevented the state from going into an immediate deficit, Gregoire said

“We were able to dodge a bullet,” Gregoire said. “But our budget remains under considerable stress.”

Gregoire said she’s not implementing across-the-board cuts sooner because she needs to give large agencies time to come up with plans on how they will make the cuts. She could offer no estimates on the number of layoffs that could be a result of the cuts. While Gregoire is limited by the Legislature to across-the-board cuts for state agencies, she has the authority to make more specific cuts in welfare programs, like WorkFirst.

Republicans renewed calls for a special session, something the majority Democrats in the Legislature have not supported. A special session would allow lawmakers to make more nuanced decisions on spending or taxes, instead of cutting all agencies equally.

Senate Republican budget chief Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield, said that if next month’s revenue forecast shows a significant drop, “it is doubtful that across-the-board cuts could achieve the level of savings necessary to keep the state out of the red between now and next summer.”

“A better approach would be for the Legislature to come back into a short special session to address this budget crisis,” he said in a written statement.

But Gregoire has long said she would not call lawmakers back unless they had a plan that they could execute quickly.

In a letter sent from House budget leaders last month, Democrats indicated that a special session could be drawn out by a lack of consensus on what to do, like earlier this year when lawmakers had go into a 30-day overtime session in order to balance the budget.

Also complicating the issue is the fact that any special session this fall would pull lawmakers off the campaign trail and lead to potentially tough votes. The entire House and about half the Senate are running for re-election in November.

© Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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