SEATTLE – Public employee unions and the people they serve denounced the Evergreen State budget unveiled by Gov. Chris Gregoire, which terminates immediately or slashes to the bone vital benefits and state services to eliminate a deficit now projected at $5.7 billion.
Gregoire used the word “eliminate” 88 times in announcing the budget Dec. 15, telling reporters she “hates” the spending plan for ending programs she herself fought to establish.
Terminated immediately is Basic Health, a groundbreaking program that serves 66,000 impoverished families and individuals.
The budget sends tuition at the state’s system of colleges and universities skyrocketing 22 percent in the next two years, after steadily climbing by double-digit rates in recent years.
Gregoire proposed an additional $2 billion in cuts to public schools on top of $2 billion already slashed from public education in the past two years.
Also terminated is all state funding for Washington’s glorious state parks. The budget proposes that the parks be funded exclusively by user fees, and many will be forced to close. Ferry service on Puget Sound and other inland waterways would be cut by 10 percent.
The budget would mean the permanent layoff of 1,800 state employees on top of 8,200 jobs terminated in the current biennial budget. Similar layoffs are forecast for public school teachers across the state if the budget stands.
Public employees are to sacrifice more even though just a month ago state workers agreed to a 3 percent pay cut in the form of furloughs and increases in their share of health insurance premiums from 12 percent to 15 percent.
The Washington Federation of State Employees said in a statement, “We are in the fight of our lives to save health benefits and the quality service we provide the people of Washington. … It’s time to end the lies and fight back against the spineless politicians and so-called ‘experts’ in the media and anti-state employee think tanks.”
The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, added, “We are launching a campaign to ‘Save Our State’ – not just health benefits but the very quality of the services we provide. If we stay silent, we lose.”
The state employee union called for a mass rally in the state capital, Olympia, on Jan. 10, the opening day of the legislature, followed by protests across the state on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 17. Protest actions are slated at the state parks on Jan. 19, to keep them open.
Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist said, “There is no way around it. We have to recognize that these cuts in K-12 and higher education funding will harm our state and our students. These cuts jeopardize Washington’s future.”
The Service Employees International Union assailed the governor for caving in to pressure from for-profit nursing homes in proposing reduced training for long-term care workers. At least 45,000 clients and the caregivers who serve them have already received notices in the mail of 10 percent cuts in the hours of care plus cancellation of all dental, vision and other benefits to reduce the state deficit by $600 million.
SEIU and a coalition that includes the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans staged a candlelight vigil in Olympia on Nov. 18 to protest the budget cuts.
Then on Dec. 15, SEIU Local 775NW caregivers returned to the Capitol and lined the corridor outside Gregoire’s office with empty wheelchairs as she announced the horrendous cutback budget. SEIU is planning a lobby day Feb. 8 with busloads of caregivers and their clients descending on Olympia to demand that the funds be restored.
Gregoire was forced to act when tea party Republicans waged all-out war against several initiatives on the Nov. 2 ballot to increase tax revenues. The “Bill Gates Sr. Tax the Rich” I-1098 ballot initiative was among the measures defeated. Washington State has no income tax and relies exclusively on regressive sales and property taxes for revenues, which fell drastically in the current economic recession. But an initiative backed by local ultra-right activist Tim Eyman passed, which requires a two-thirds majority vote by the legislature to increase taxes, or approval of any tax increase by voters in a ballot referendum.
The Puget Sound ARA has adopted a legislative agenda urging the legislature to place on the ballot, next November, an initiative to close some of the 234 tax exemptions that enable banks and corporations to escape an estimated $4.6 billion annually in taxes. The group cites the example of North Dakota, where the State Bank of North Dakota generates tens of millions in revenues for the state, the only state in the nation now running a healthy budget surplus. The Puget Sound ARA is urging support of a bill to be reintroduced by state Rep. Bob Hasegawa to create a state bank in Washington.