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State agencies told to find almost $2 billion in savings, freeze hiring

In this photo taken March 23, 2020, cherry trees bloom next to the Capitol building in Olympia. Gov. Jay Inslee has asked state agencies to slash spending as the state anticipates a major downturn in revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee ordered Washington agencies on Wednesday to look for some $1.9 billion in budget cuts and freeze hiring and equipment purchases.

With the state facing a projected $7 billion hole in revenue through the 2023 fiscal year, all departments received notice Wednesday to look for savings equaling 15% of their budgets through June 2021.

Human service agencies – which include the Health Care Authority, the Department of Children, Youth and Family Services and the Department of Corrections – are directed to propose some $825 million in savings. The Department of Social and Health Services, the state’s largest department, was given a target of $500 million, and state colleges and universities are being asked to find a total of $310 million.

Agencies were told to consider ways to reduce, delay or eliminate programs; identify programs or services not part of their core mission; and consider whether reducing one program shifts a problem, and its cost, to another program.

The proposals are due by June 1.

Inslee’s directive also freezes new hires, personal contracts and equipment purchases starting next Monday. Exemptions to the freeze will be made to continue critical services or operations, he said.

In a news release announcing the freezes, Inslee urged agencies “to use common sense, good judgment and creativity” in finding savings.

The partial shutdown of the economy over the last two months to stop the spread of COVID-19 is expected to wreak havoc with the record budget the Legislature passed before the severity of the virus was known.

A preliminary revenue forecast at the end of April projected the state will collect about $7 billion less in taxes and fees through mid-2023 than was projected in February. An official revenue forecast is scheduled for June.

Inslee has said he will probably call a special legislative session sometime this year.