OLYMPIA — Washington residents could see dramatic cuts in road projects, care for seniors and college financial aid next year as state agencies try to adjust to a loss of tax dollars from the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
State agencies turned in proposals Monday to cut 15% from their budgets over the next fiscal year, which starts on July 1, as well as the two years after that.
Gov. Jay Inslee directed state agencies last month to come up with proposed cuts representing an estimate of the amount state tax receipts could drop. Monday he said he hadn't yet studied the proposals in detail, but he wanted agency officials to identify where they thought cuts should be made if they are necessary.
"There's a second reason as well, which is to alert the public to what those 15% cuts really look like," he said during a news conference.
The agency proposals are one of the first steps in a process that could result in the Legislature, which passed a budget in March before the pandemic hit the state, returning for a special session this summer to rewrite the budget.
Among the suggested reductions are the following:
* $949 million from Transportation Department programs, with some of the biggest cuts coming in highway construction, maintenance and ferry service. The total includes about $500 million the department hasn't spent on projects since mid March when much of the state's construction temporarily halted, but doesn't account for the cost of restarting those projects and making any changes.
* $503 million in cuts to salaries and programs in the Department of Social and Health Services, where many employees would be furloughed two days per month and some salary increases would be rolled back; one ward at Eastern State Hospital and six at Western State Hospital would be closed; and the negotiated rates for those providing care to clients in the Aging and Long Term Support programs would be cut and the number of clients eligible for those programs reduced.
* $181 million from the Department of Corrections by canceling scheduled wages for staff and a combination of sentencing reforms, reducing some plans to expand work release programs and closing the Maple Lane Correctional Center. But the estimate assumes that plans for social distancing in prison facilities to prevent COVID-19 don't take place.
* $52 million from the Washington College Grant program, which provides financial aid to college and technical school students who apply based on income levels.
* $21.6 million from the Department of Commerce, with more than $16 million coming from canceling a planned expansion of a program that provides rent assistance to landlords who rent to people with a disability and are homeless.
The University of Washington argued the 15% reduction should be about $55 million, or $1 million less than they were told to calculate, and said most of it would come out of layoffs, furloughs and closed positions.
UW recognizes the state faces immense budget pressures, President Ana Mari Cauce wrote. "However, the current situation has made abundantly clear the degree to which the University of Washington is essential to our state, both in terms of front-line mobilization against COVID-19...and the importance of an educated and informed public to adequately respond to unprecedented threats to our society and well-being."
Washington State University did not provide a detailed list of suggested cuts, but instead argued that a 15% reduction would be like closing its nursing and medical programs combined, or like closing business, communications and education programs. The state faces "a significant fiscal challenge," the university acknowledged, but it faced severe cuts during the previous recession that haven't been fully restored.
"We additionally request that any reductions are not prescriptive so that the university has the opportunity to administer them strategically to preserve priority programming," university officials wrote.
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, called the 15% cuts "a blunt and crude instrument" that don't produce rational decisions that show the need for a special session.
"The need to act is now evident," she said. "For every month you delay action, you need to cut deeper to achieve the same level of savings."
Asked about the timing of a special session, Inslee said he hadn't made a decision on when to call it. It would happen when a plan takes shape and "when there's a possibility of success."