RICHLAND -- Gov. Chris Gregoire told students and staff members at Columbia Basin College's Health Science Center in Richland on Friday that she didn't want to propose deep cuts to higher education, but is left with little choice.
In a list of possible budget cuts unveiled Thursday, Gregoire said she is likely to propose cutting 15 percent of the state's financial support for public colleges and universities.
But she said she believes doing that will be harmful to the state in the long term.
"The last place I want to cut is higher education," she said. "It is a wonderful tool to attract and retain business in the state."
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Gregoire normally rolls out a proposed budget each December, but has called the Legislature into a special session starting Nov. 28 to write a supplemental budget that cuts another $2 billion from the $32 billion general fund budget.
About two-thirds of the budget is off-limits for cuts because of constitutional and federal mandates, she said. That leaves one-third -- primarily education, health and human services and public safety -- from which to carve the reductions.
Gregoire's proposal also would eliminate the state's Basic Health Plan, which subsidizes medical coverage for 35,000 people, and end medical coverage for 21,000 people enrolled in the Disability Lifeline and state alcohol and drug treatment programs.
Disability Lifeline is a program for people deemed temporarily unemployable because of a disability. Participants on Nov. 1 lose the small cash payments -- about $200 per month -- that is the sole income for many.
Some will be enrolled into a housing voucher program, but money for the program will cover only about half the eligible people in Benton and Franklin counties. That's based on money already budgeted last spring and is subject to change if the Legislature decides to trim more.
Gregoire said she tried to change the eligibility requirements for those programs to save money, but was prevented by lawsuits, so she had to eliminate them altogether.
She expects the people who have been using those programs for health care to instead turn to emergency rooms.
"We saved more in the short run, but do we cost ourselves more in the long run?" she asked.
In the arena of K-12 education, she proposes to reduce levy equalization by 50 percent, which will mean less money flowing to property-poor school districts.
She also would reduce the amount of time criminals are supervised after being released from prison.
"These cuts -- there are none I recommend as good for the state," she said. "That's where we are. We can no longer meet the needs of the people of our state. ... We have to live within our means."
She is holding out hope that the economy will rebound, but that isn't likely to happen anytime soon. State economist Arun Raha has told her it's four times as likely the state will see another drop in the Nov. 17 forecast than that it will break even or pull ahead.
Her next step before the special session will be to examine possible ways of bringing in more revenue, but isn't certain whether that might be through user fees or a tax measure sent to the voters.
"That's the discussion we have to have over the next couple of months," she said. "I have talked to the head of the Department of Revenue and said, 'Collect all the ideas out there.' ... We will put on all kinds of revenue. We will ask what, if any, are viable. And we will ask what voters would do if it went before the voters."