The Republican shadow government in Olympia is essentially powerless, but nonetheless alive and kicking. No, it hasn’t produced an alternative budget to those Gov. Chris Gregoire and House and Senate Democrats have proposed, but that doesn't mean we can't discern some shadowy outlines of the GOP approach.
Gregoire likes to goad the GOP about their missing budget plan. “My colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle have not embraced the fact that we should do revenue,” said the governor after signing legislation to suspend the two-thirds requirement for tax hikes. “They’ve embraced an all-cuts budget. While they’ve embraced it, by the way, they haven’t said what they would cut. They haven’t produced a budget," she complained, adding the familiar invitation to a sucker punch: "If the Republicans have a better budget, I’d like to see it.” Republicans, meanwhile, show no signs of taking the bait, as spelled out in this story by Brad Shannon of The Olympian.
Gregoire also insisted that any Republican alternative would have to save programs like hospice, children’s healthcare, and maternity care. To Republicans, this is a set up designed to make them look heartless. Who doesn’t support hospice?
And so the political fencing goes. But let’s back-up for a moment. Democrats and Republicans don’t even agree on how Washington state got into this financial mess — an unprecedented $12 billion gap in revenues and projected spending for the entire 2009-11 biennium. Democrats are quick to point the finger at greed on Wall Street. Republicans counter-punch that it was overspending by Democrats just before the housing bubble burst. The GOP’s favorite statistic is that Washington’s budget grew by 33 percent (or $8.4 billion) during Gregoire’s first term in office.
Every chance he gets, Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, whips out a three-by-five laminated card from December 2007. It shows a bar graph of rising state spending and predicts state budget shortfalls in the 09-11 budget cycle. In other words, the Republican mantra is: “We told you so.” But had Republicans been in charge, would they have banked several billion dollars in revenues during the good times? Chances are if they didn’t spend the money on their own priorities, they would have sent it back to taxpayers and businesses in the form of tax cuts.
But that’s all water under the bridge. The question now is how to rebalance the budget and close the current $2.7 billion shortfall through July 2011. Democrats are defaulting to raising taxes, along with another round of cuts (last year they cut nearly $4 billion and didn’t resort to tax hikes). Republicans claim if they were in charge, they’d do it with cuts alone. You don’t have to look hard to find longtime Olympia observers who believe even Republicans would raise some taxes if they were in charge. They point to the 1982 session as evidence.
So what might Republicans cut, if ever forced to say or given the chance to govern? For starters, the Basic Health Plan and General Assistance Unemployable — two costly state-only funded programs that don’t benefit from federal Medicaid matching dollars. BHP is a sliding-fee health insurance program. GA-U is a cash-assistance welfare program that serves about 20,000 (mostly) men who are out of work because of issues like mental health and drug and alcohol addiction.
“Two programs I’m sure that meet needs of people,” Representative Gary Alexander, R-Thurston, the ranking Republican on the House budget committee, told me last week on TVW’s “Inside Olympia.” “But basically in a time like this we have to think about … reducing the footprint of government … and basically say we just have to live within the resources … and live without them.”
Even if Republicans didn’t fully eliminate these programs, they say they would weed out people they don’t think deserve the taxpayer subsidized benefit. This might mean stricter and more frequent means-testing and citizenship checks.
Last year, Democrats slashed funding for the Basic Health Plan by 43 percent or roughly 40,000 slots. Today 94,000 Washingtonians are on a wait list to get on the popular, low-cost health insurance program. Democrats are convinced that half-a-loaf is better than no loaf at all and are determined to save what’s left of the BHP. Gregoire is seeking a federal waiver so that Medicaid dollars could be channeled into the program.
GA-U has a fierce defender in Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. In fact, House Democrats are changing name of the program to the less bureaucratic “Disability Lifeline.” House and Senate Democrats are also proposing a series of cost-saving reforms to the program. The Senate plan goes the furthest and, in Republican fashion, would set time limits on how long individuals can receive the cash benefit. But that will be viewed by Chopp as too draconian.
Other Republican cost-saving proposals include: eliminating full-day Kindergarten, requiring state employees to pay more for their healthcare, and instituting stricter time limits and sanctions for welfare recipients.
Republicans would also reduce the eligibility level for another apple of Speaker Chopp’s eye — the Democrats’ Apple Health for Kids program. It provides low-cost medical insurance to children in families making up to 300 percent of poverty which, for a family of four, is $66,000 a year. Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, says that’s too generous and creates an incentive for families to drop their private insurance and go onto Apple Health. He’d drop the eligibility level back down to 200 percent of poverty. There’s also a Republican proposal to eliminate health insurance for children of illegal immigrants saving an estimated $60 million.
Without a formal budget proposal, it’s hard to calculate whether the Republican proposals add up to enough savings to close the budget gap. The GOP is also fiercely critical of how much federal one-time money Democrats are relying on to help bailout the budget. If Republicans were in charge and took less of that D.C. money, they’d have to cut even more state spending. Democrats, to be sure, don’t think the Republican numbers pencil out. And it’s important to remember Republicans, like Democrats, are not monolithic. Some Republicans would eliminate a program like the Basic Health Plan, but that would anathema to others. Who knows what deeper cuts the GOP could actually muscle through if they the party in power.
Another criticism that Republicans level at majority Democrats is they’re not doing enough to reform state government. In her second inaugural speech in 2009, Gregoire called on lawmakers to knock down “sacred cows” in state government. But that’s easier said than done, especially when powerful labor unions are blocking your every move.
No doubt Republicans would find it easier to blow past the unions. You could imagine them finding the political will to close outdated state institutions, split up the Department of Social and Health Services, and privatize state liquor sales. But their bandwidth might instead be taken up tackling the priorities of the business community — for instance making the state worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance systems more employer-friendly.
In the end, one Olympia insider told me, both parties, when in power, usually end up working at the margins.
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