As cuts rain down on the state’s social safety net, there’s debate over who should make them: the governor or the Legislature.
Take Gov. Chris Gregoire’s cuts to welfare programs. Welfare checks were reduced last week and more than 5,000 families with long histories of collecting benefits were kicked off. Soon parents who need help with child care might be turned away.
Even with those kinds of tough choices to make, there’s a fight about who decides. There are moves in both the House and Senate to take more authority over the welfare budget from the governor. Of 98 House members, 79 have signed on to a bill in a rare show of support that signals to Gregoire that the House, at least, could override a veto.
“The budget is our document and we need to have control over all of it, because it’s all connected,” said Rep. Bill Hinkle, a Cle Elum Republican sponsoring the bill.
Some lawmakers are trying to defend another patch of budget turf: decision-making power over what happens to state institutions, such as Rainier School in Buckley and Western State Hospital in Lakewood.
Gregoire has asked lawmakers to erase the names of such institutions from state law to give her flexibility in managing the budget.
“I don’t think the Legislature’s prepared to surrender its control over that issue,” said Sen. Steve Conway, a Tacoma Democrat.
Others are just as glad to have Gregoire make those decisions. Lawmakers have introduced a bill on her behalf to eliminate the explicit authorization for regional habilitation centers for the developmentally disabled.
Gregoire has asked the Legislature for permission to close the centers in Bremerton and Selah, Francis Haddon Morgan Center and Yakima Valley School, and more might follow.
“That might not be the last thing we have to do,” said Gregoire’s budget director, Marty Brown.
But Gregoire isn’t targeting Rainier School for closure, her office said. Nor is she looking to add more lockups for juvenile offenders, such as Green Hill Academic School in Chehalis, to the closure list – much less the Western State and Eastern State psychiatric hospitals.
The patients at the hospitals would have nowhere to go if they closed. “I don’t see us doing that,” said Kari Burrell, her policy director.
The Washington Federation of State Employees, whose members work at many of the facilities run by the Department of Social and Health Services, is worried anyway.
“The way it’s written, it would potentially wipe out all state DSHS institutions,” federation spokesman Tim Welch said.
Gregoire was able to order the closure of McNeil Island Corrections Center last year because prisons aren’t named in state law.
The governor is trying to close two centers for the developmentally disabled to consolidate a system that decades ago served thousands in six facilities, and now serves 915 in five centers.
The potential closures reflect a preference in her administration and among many lawmakers for people to be taken care of closer to their hometowns and families.
Opponents argue some residents would find inadequate care outside the centers’ walls, and that closures would hurt the economies of towns such as Buckley.
Governors have controlled the welfare budget since lawmakers handed the responsibility over in the 1990s as part of welfare reform.
“It’s been kind of a sore spot over the years,” Hinkle said.
Now the federal- and state-funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program faces a shortfall of nearly one-fifth of its $2 billion budget over the next two years.
As the budget picture worsened over the fall and winter before lawmakers returned to Olympia in January, Gregoire and the agencies that run programs within that welfare budget – notably the social services department – made tough cuts.
“The quickness with which we’ve been able to move has been critical,” DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus said Thursday after asking a Senate committee not to tie her agency’s hands by stripping it of authority to move money between programs.
During the up to 10 months of the year when the Legislature isn’t in session, Gregoire’s budget office says, the governor needs the flexibility to retool welfare programs as the number of people enrolled changes or new federal money comes available.
Senators are considering a bill by Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, that would have the Legislature set spending amounts for cash assistance, child care subsidies and other programs related to welfare, which the governor couldn’t change. Regala and some of the advocates who support moving authority to the Legislature dislike cuts Gregoire has made, including a five-year lifetime limit on welfare payouts.
Cice Stringer of Thurston County was among those who stopped receiving food stamps and cash benefits this month. The unemployed single mom of a 4- and a 2-year-old is seeking an exemption to the cutoff because of her younger child’s Asperger syndrome, but worries if she doesn’t qualify she might lose her apartment.
She’s trying to get on her feet, she said. “I can’t do it alone.”
While some legislative Democrats think the cuts have been too damaging, Republicans such as Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville think Gregoire should have made some of them years ago, like the five-year limit on benefits.
But where the party caucuses agree is that they should have a say.
“We’re the only state in the country where the Legislature is expected to pass a budget but has no control over one of the largest budget areas,” Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma and vice chairwoman of the House budget committee.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826