Gregoire calls for special session to plug $1.1 billion budget hole

  • Mon Dec 6th, 2010 8:15pm
  • News

By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers will be called into special session — possibly as early as Friday — to begin chipping away at a $1.1 billion deficit in the state budget.

Gov. Chris Gregoire announced her decision Monday after holding an hour-long meeting with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Legislature.

She did not set a date but said it would occur before Christmas. She said she’s giving the legislative leaders a couple more days to reach agreement on when to meet and what actions to take.

“I made it clear we’re going into special session. I just want to know from them what day they’d like to come in, because I’d like them to come in, get the job done and go home,” Gregoire said.

And if lawmakers don’t give her a date, she said, “I’ll give them a date.”

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, one of the four legislators in the meeting, gave the governor a date a couple hours after the meeting: Friday.

She said it “made sense” because many lawmakers will already be in Olympia for previously scheduled committee hearings.

“We think we’re here, let’s just get under way,” said Brown, who guessed the session could last through the weekend.

House and Senate Republicans have been awaiting Gregoire’s announcement for months. They’ve long argued the sooner the Legislature cuts spending, the greater the budget savings in the months ahead.

“We’re prepared to go to work whenever we have to,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

The state is facing a projected $1.1 billion shortfall in its current budget and another $4.6 billion hole in the 2011-13 biennium.

In October, Gregoire ordered across-the-board cuts which, if carried out, will erase roughly $400 million of the deficit through June 30.

She’s said making up the rest may require such steps as eliminating the low-income health insurance program known as the Basic Health Plan and ending small monthly assistance checks to those unable to work. It also might mean axing state funds for all-day kindergarten and a college financial aid program.

Gregoire has been pushing legislative leaders to come up with their own deal for reducing the deficit that could be passed swiftly in a special session.

Monday’s meeting was the second in a week she’s had involving Brown, Hewitt, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.

In recent days, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers prepared lists of suggestions of what to carve from the budget.

Brown said the governor set a goal for them to pare $650 million in spending, part of that coming from the earlier across-the-board reductions that have yet to kick in, with the rest from new decisions.

As of late Monday lawmakers had still not agreed on much, though Brown sounded confident something will come together quickly.

And, she said she expects a bipartisan vote on the floor of each chamber.

“If it’s really a four-corner budget negotiation, then I presume that the votes will come from all four corners,” she said.

Meanwhile Monday, two Snohomish County state senators said they didn’t see the value of a special session with the 2011 regular session set to begin Jan. 10.

“We’re trying to save every penny, and this will cost us money,” said Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds. “I personally think we can do exactly the same things then that we’d do now.”

Outgoing Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett said she didn’t “hear any consensus in caucus that we need a special session. There’s a huge budget problem that needs to be dealt with. If we’re just going to do more gimmickry, I wouldn’t be voting for that.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.