OLYMPIA – Warning that every month is critical in solving the state’s looming budget shortfall, Gov. Chris Gregoire tried Monday to prod legislators into suggesting budget cuts more palatable than hers.
Three of the four legislative leadership groups had already signaled they wouldn’t meet her deadline for submitting alternate plans and had asked for more time, Gregoire said. But she plans to meet with House and Senate leaders of both parties by week’s end to discuss a special session that would address a projected $385 million gap between expected revenue and scheduled expenses.
“I showed them a way” to cut that amount, but it can’t be done through larger across-the-board cuts to most state agencies and departments, she said. Instead, it requires deep cuts or even elimination of some state programs that are on the books, including parts of the Basic Health Plan and Disability Lifeline.
Under state law, only the Legislature can make those kinds of cuts to programs it has previously approved. Legislators could return for a short special session sometime in December if they can agree on what to cut, or wait until Jan. 10 when a new Legislature convenes with new members chosen in the Nov. 2 election.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, has called Gregoire’s list of cuts “a first step” but said it removes opportunities for college students and needed services for the poor. Before taking such drastic steps, the state should look at government reforms that could achieve significant savings, she said: “This process won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy.”
Gregoire acknowledged the cuts she proposed aren’t easy, but she said the Legislature should act quickly if she calls a special session: “I don’t want them to come in here and sit around; all that does is spend more money.”
Every dollar put off now means money will have to be cut near the end of the budget cycle when options are fewer, Gregoire said. “For every inaction, there is going to have to be a counteraction.”
The new push for a special session was triggered earlier this month when state revenue forecasts were below most state officials’ expectations. Last week, Gregoire announced her proposed cuts and said she wanted Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate and House to submit their plans by the end of the day Monday. Both caucuses in the House and Senate Democrats had said they needed more time, while Senate Republicans hand-delivered a response about 4:30 p.m. Gregoire said Tuesday, however, that proposal didn’t find enough savings to balance the budget.
Legislators could give her the authority to make the cuts she’s proposing in a special session, then come back in January to “do cleanup and dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”
Some programs can’t be changed or eliminated without at least 30 days of notice to recipients; it’s required by law, and it’s fair, she said.
“We’re taking away people’s livelihood; we’re taking away their entire health care, ” she said. “They’re entitled to legal notice.”
Because of the state’s budget problems, Gregoire announced Monday that state agencies will change the way they issue contracts, to better ensure the state gets what it pays for. The state will require anyone supplying goods or services, from office supplies to social or medical care, to meet more rigorous performance standards.
These performance contracts will provide incentives for jobs done ahead of schedule or with better than expected results, but consequences for being late or below standards. The state Department of Transportation already uses performance contracts, and about three-fourths of its projects are finished early or with less expensive ways of delivering the services, she said.
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