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Gregoire considers options for budget

Thu., July 29, 2010

OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire could decide by next week whether to call a special session to cut the state general fund budget or order across-the-board cuts of as much as 4 percent to many programs and departments.

She expects to talk with leaders of both legislative houses today, seeking a commitment that they would finish a special session in two to three days. She wants to decide before Congress recesses on Aug. 9 whether to let legislators trim spending or use across-the-board cuts, the only option open to her under state law.

“I want to know tomorrow where they are,” Gregoire said Wednesday of the Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses. “I’ve had legislators saying don’t call us back. … They don’t think they can get it done.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the Senate Republicans’ point man on budget matters, argued a special session is much better than across-the-board cuts because it allows the state to reduce spending 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 does not let the governor vary the cuts for different agencies or single out some programs for elimination while sparing others from cuts. “I think it’s a ridiculous tool,” Gregoire said.

The state is facing a budget shortfall in part because Congress has yet to approve $480 million for Medicaid patients that state leaders were told early this year to expect. That was to become the state’s ending-fund surplus.

Revenue projections also have dropped since the Legislature passed the supplemental budget in April. Without a special session, Gregoire can cut to eliminate a projected shortfall of more than $345 million on existing programs and salaries but can’t make extra cuts to leave money for an ending-fund surplus.

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