Washington State lawmakers, state workers and social service agencies are all keeping a close eye on the Washington Legislature's third special session to reach an agreement on a budget and avoid a partial government shutdown. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com
Washington State lawmakers, state workers and social service agencies are all keeping a close eye on the Washington Legislature's third special session to reach an agreement on a budget and avoid a partial government shutdown. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

Politics & Government

Here’s what a government shutdown July 1 might mean for state workers and services

June 22, 2017 02:34 PM

UPDATED June 27, 2017 01:46 PM

Mass layoffs of state workers, disruptions to government health services, and a loss of child care assistance.

That’s only some of what’s in store under a partial government shutdown if state lawmakers can’t reach an agreement on Washington’s next two-year budget and pass it by midnight on June 30.

It’s a scenario top lawmakers say is unlikely, and one that has never happened before.

But state agencies are preparing for the possibility as the Legislature marches toward next week’s deadline without a compromise in hand.

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“We have to be prepared for a shutdown,” Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Wednesday.

The state is on the brink of shutdown because of disagreement over how to pay for complex court-ordered fixes to Washington’s K-12 school system. The state Supreme Court ruled in the 2012 McCleary case that the state must take on the full cost of teacher and other school-employee salaries that are partially paid for by local levies right now. The high court also ordered other changes to schools.

And the court ordered lawmakers to come up with a plan to comply with McCleary by the time they adjourn this year.

Democrats who control the House first proposed a swath of new and increased taxes to pay for their $44.7 billion budget plan, including taxes on capital gains, online shopping and some businesses.

The $43 billion budget plan proposed earlier this year by the GOP-led Senate relies on a new statewide property tax. Republicans also would reduce local levies far more than the Democratic plan would.

About half of the money in each proposal would go to K-12 schools.

Gov. Jay Inslee has said both sides have made concessions toward a compromise recently, but specifics about remaining differences haven’t been disclosed by lawmakers.

State workers, agency services affected

One of the largest groups of people hurt by a government shutdown would be state workers.

If a shutdown happens, most state agencies would be fully or partially closed.

Roughly 32,000 agency employes would be laid off until a budget is passed, according to the state Office of Financial Management (OFM). Layoff notices began going out to state workers on Thursday.

Only employees required to keep essential functions running would remain on the job during a shutdown. That means some state-run programs would stay more or less intact. For example, Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Lakewood, would be exempt from layoffs, said Kathy Spears, the hospital’s spokeswoman.

Other agencies would see large temporary reductions in staffing. Only about a dozen of the state Health Care Authority’s 1,100 employees would remain working, HCA spokeswoman Amy Blondin said.

Under current law, state workers laid off because of a government shutdown don’t get paid for the time they are laid off, according to OFM.

Many of the services run by the HCA and other agencies would be nixed until a new budget is passed, too.

The state reports about 2.2 million people could see a temporary loss of support services related to their health insurance — including 1.9 million people enrolled in Apple Health, the state’s health insurance program for low-income people.

A loss of overall health coverage isn’t expected, Blondin said, because health providers would be asked to front the costs with the expectation of repayment later on.

Still, Blondin said it’s “unclear” how long the state can ask Apple Health providers to keep offering services without payment from the state.

At the Department of Early Learning, shutdown would pause state subsidies used for child care for about 31,000 low-income families. The shutdown would come during summer break for schools, a high-demand time, according to OFM.

A slew of other services run by the state also would be stopped, ranging from counseling for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to the tracking of disease outbreaks by the Department of Health.

The effects of a shutdown also extend to public schools, parks and more.

The Olympia School Board voted Monday to lend itself up to $12 million from an account reserved for construction projects so it could pay employees during a shutdown.

“The board does not take this action lightly, but feels strongly that it must ensure school district continuity in the face of inaction by the Washington State Legislature,” school board President Eileen Thomson said in a news release.

Tacoma Schools has enough reserve cash to operate for about two months without problems, said Dan Voelpel, a spokesman for the district..

State parks also would be forced to close, canceling reservations for camping, weddings and other events.

Time spent preparing

Even if the state avoids a shutdown, agencies, schools and others have spent significant time preparing in case their anticipated state money doesn’t materialize.

In addition to planning for a shutdown, the HCA has had to contact its staff and people served by the agency to let them know about the potential closures and layoffs, Blondin said.

“It does take quite a bit of time and energy,” she said.

State Parks notified more than 11,000 reservation holders this week of the possibility their bookings could be canceled by a shutdown, said Virginia Painter, a spokeswoman for the department.

The agency also had to prepare to shut down all of its systems and facilities.

“It can be quite complex,” Painter said.

Inslee called the preparations a “huge waste.”

“Instead of providing people child care or protection for foster-care kids or maintaining the state parks, we got state employees running around trying to figure this out,” he said.

Optimism over a deal

Despite the short time frame to reach a compromise, top lawmakers are adamant a government shutdown will be avoided.

“We don’t want it any more than the governor,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told reporters Wednesday. “It is not our goal. It is not our hope. We’re sincere in preventing it. It will be our staff employees as well. It will be our families who use state parks. They care, too. We care as well."

Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes who is one of the House budget negotiators, said she was worried about laying off state workers living paycheck to paycheck and is “trying to find a way to get out of here without a government shutdown.”

“I take the state shutdown very seriously and I’m going to do everything in my power to try to get done by the end of next week or by June 30 to make sure that families have that stability,” Lytton said.

Reporter Melissa Santos contributed to this report.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein