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Shadle students discuss budget with Gregoire

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire explains the state budget process to a Shadle Park High School economics class on Friday. (Christopher Anderson)
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire explains the state budget process to a Shadle Park High School economics class on Friday. (Christopher Anderson)

If Chris Gregoire gets tired of being Washington’s governor, she might have a future as a Shadle Park High School economics teacher.

She might, anyway, if the state weren’t making such big cuts in education funding.

Gregoire parachuted into teacher Mark Miller’s senior economics class Friday to give a short lecture on the state budget and take questions about the need for more cuts in school support and other state programs.

Revenue projections have fallen by $1.4 billion since the state’s $23.8 billion budget for this year and next was set, and more declines are likely, Gregoire said. Consequently, she is seeking $2 billion in cuts.

“Why would you take money from education?” Shadle senior Levi McBournie asked. “Because we, the students, are the future.”

“I agree 1,000 percent,” Gregoire responded. “So what am I gonna cut?”

She said she sent the Legislature a $4 billion list of possibilities so lawmakers can share her pain.

“If you ask me what I hate cutting the most, it’s education,” Gregoire told McBournie. “I don’t like any of this, but what are my alternatives?”

Her recommendations include a 50 percent reduction in “levy equalization” money for “property-poor” school districts – like those in the Spokane area – that can’t raise as much property tax as richer districts.

She also called for increasing class sizes by two students in grades 4 through 12.

“Pac-Man” nibbles won’t solve the problem, Gregoire said. The easy cuts have already been made.

She said she has to “go where there’s lots of money,” and school funding is one of those places.

“Why are we in this mess?” the visiting professor asked her Shadle audience.

“Yes!” she said, pleased when a student noted the state’s heavy reliance on sales tax revenue.

People reduce their spending when they’re nervous, Gregoire said.

“Now what makes consumers so nervous?” she continued.

“They don’t want to get into debt they can’t get out of,” Stephen Buckmaster answered.

“Exactly,” the governor responded. “They went from massive amounts of debt to now overcompensating.”

Gregoire said she believes the U.S. Congress caused the new revenue slump with brinkmanship in August that “for the first time in history, almost put our country into defaulting” on the national debt. That took a “huge toll” on consumer confidence, she said.

“I notice in the news that you’re thinking about cutting Basic Health,” Kaylee Privett observed.

“Eliminating it,” Gregoire said.

Her attempt to trim the subsidized medical insurance program by making legal aliens ineligible was blocked by a court.

Gregoire said she also is tossing the state – not federal – food stamps program for the same reason.

“I hate doing that,” she said.

Paige Farrell asked whether federal money figures into the state budget problem, and Gregoire cited the Medicaid program that provides health care for the poor. For every dollar the state cuts from the program, it loses a matching federal dollar.

“We’re cutting thousands of people off of health care, not just the Basic Health Plan,” Gregoire said.

After class was dismissed, the governor said she found the Shadle students “very inquisitive, very thoughtful, well-informed.”

Their questions “covered the waterfront,” Gregoire said. “The future looks bright to me with those kind of kids.”

She found Nick Ritchie’s question about collecting sales tax from online merchants particularly sophisticated.

It came after Gregoire dismissed some other budget-balancing ideas, such as an income tax, as dead on arrival.

“He was obviously thinking, ‘Where would there be a potential source of money?’ ” Gregoire said.

She said there is bipartisan support in Congress for Ritchie’s idea, and she has asked U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to seek action.