When legislators return to Olympia on Jan. 9 they will face a further round of budget cuts totaling $1.5 billion. These cuts will involve real people with real needs. One such person is Kate. She spoke movingly to the House Ways & Means Committee in late November when it heard testimony on the governor’s all-cuts supplemental operating budget. Kate's concern is about further reductions in home care services that would impact dramatically the quality of her life.
So this story is about Kate.
Since the start of the “great recession” in 2008, the legislature has had to reduce its operating budget by $10 billion from “maintenance-of-effort” levels. An additional $2 billion shortfall developed after the budget for the current biennium was adopted last May. This amounts roughly to the 25 percent of the budget that is not “protected” by state constitutional or federal mandates.
Legislators found about $500 million in spending reductions in the December special session in the form of fund transfers, one-time bookkeeping adjustments, and a few minor program cuts. Now numerous programs and services are on the chopping block, including several that were cut previously.
One program area that has seen large cuts during the past three years is in-home personal care. These services have been reduced by $311 million, resulting in more than 46,000 elderly and disabled adults losing up to a quarter of their monthly hours of care. Additionally, providers of home care and community residential services have had their reimbursement rates cut by $50 million. This has limited a provider’s ability to serve clients and caused some to only serve private-pay clients who can afford the care.
Gov. Gregoire’s proposed supplemental budget (the most draconian version, and not likely to be implemented) would make even deeper cuts in these essential programs. It would reduce — or in some cases eliminate — services for people with developmental disabilities or those in long-term care.
The governor has suggested one way out: Ask voters to approve a temporary half percent increase in the state sales tax. If passed next spring, the tax would generate about $500 million annually for each of the next three years. It would allow a “buy-back” of further cuts to higher education, K-12, and public safety programs. And it would prevent 1,600 individuals from losing all personal care and related services, and restore service hours for some of the most vulnerable clients.
The legislative hearing on the budget was on the first day of the “Occupy the Capitol” demonstration. The hearing extended over several hours, beginning in the early afternoon and ending well into the evening. Members of the Ways & Means Committee heard testimony from social advocacy groups, non-profit agencies that contract with the state to deliver a wide range of human and health services, workers who provide those services, and labor organizations that represent the workers.
The committee also heard from service recipients like Kate, who is wheel-chair bound. Kate at first had some difficulty with the microphone, but she told the committee her “story” in a quiet and clear voice in the two minutes allocated.
Kate is a retiree who lives in Sequim where she was a city council member. She has multiple sclerosis and suffers from asthma attacks. Kate said that until last year she had received satisfactory home care services, including help with cooking, cleaning, and personal hygiene.
Then came the budget cuts, and her assistance was reduced. Showers are now once every four days. Without night service, Kate said she has to lie in her own waste “in exquisite pain” awaiting the aid worker’s morning visit. Kate, who has a slight frame, indicated that she has lost seven pounds.
Under the newly proposed cuts, she said she would suffer compounding effects. Her increased health care costs may make it difficult to pay required renters’ insurance. She might loose her housing subsidy that is contingent on having the insurance and being able to keep her apartment in good order. Kate fears she might become homeless.
There were probably others with similar stories to tell the committee. But on that particular day legislators didn’t hear from them because the occupiers delayed the start of the hearings. Many who had signed up to testify on the budget had to leave or miss their transportation home.
No one testifying in favor of funding for social services spoke against funding other essential programs such as higher education or K-12. Not one of the approximately 100 speakers said “fund only us, not the other guy.” In fact, social programs such as Readiness to Learn, which helps students with issues in their home environment, were often cited as necessary complements to effective basic education. The large majority of those testifying said they supported the governor’s “balanced” approach and that the legislature should ask voters for new revenues.
No one from the business community spoke that day. I worry that business interests are more interested in funding education more generously, not by raising taxes but by cutting social services. They need to listen to the Kates of this state, and keep in mind the broader perspectives on funding essential services they advocate.