Governor Christine Gregoire is holding a gun to the heads of 16,000 kids (or their health care plans anyway) and threatening to pull the trigger if law-makers in Olympia don't raise taxes during the next legislative session.
Pass new taxes or Gregoire will shoot this dog, whose name is "health care for kids".
Gregoire unveiled her proposed budget for next year today and, in accordance with state law, it was all deep cuts. Washington does a new budget every two years so this is a supplemental proposal to close a $2.6 billion hole that's arisen since finalizing the budget during this year's session.
To make those cuts, Gregoire went right for the political jugular: health care and education.
Gregoire doesn't actually want to make those cuts, mind you. It's a move in the political game designed to force legislators to either back the cuts or vote for new tax packages that she plans to unveil in January.
Gregoire's hostages include the state's Basic Health Plan, which covers 65,000 people, and the adorably named Apple Health program, which covers 16,000 low-income children. In the role of the hand-wringing mother tearfully begging the captor for mercy, the Washington State Hospital Association said this morning: "These cuts threaten quality health care services for everyone in Washington state."
Also on the chopping block are grants to help lower-income students attend state colleges, a fund to help support the schools in places with lower property values, and a program supplementing unemployment insurance payments.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, is ready to back tax hikes to keep all of this from happening. She says her "Do Not Cut" list is health care and schools, the very things Gregoire has proposed cutting. "I think the social safety net is going to be impacted if we do an all-cuts budget," she says.
Gregoire's budget strategy has echoes of then-Executive Ron Sims' so-called lifeboat two years ago. In the fall of 2007, trying to over come a $93 million deficit, Sims didn't propose cutting out the parks maintenance budget, which might have been begrudgingly accepted at the time. Instead, he took community clinics and dental programs for kids, funded them for six months to a year, and said they would get the ax if Olympia didn't give King County the ability to levy a new utility tax.
Unfortunately for low-income kids dependent on their schools for dental care, the legislature didn't bite. There was a last minute shuffle to try and get essential community clinics and the like out of the lifeboat before it went down. But sealants for kids sank.
The state's budget problems are far bigger and cover more people than the King County government. And any cuts at this point will hurt someone. But when you're trying to garner legislative and public support for tax hikes, it helps to target the most beloved or needed state programs.
But as Sims found out, the risk you take with hostage situations is that even if you don't actually intend to kill your captives, they can get caught in the crossfire.