Gov. Gregoire at this morning's press conference
Gov. Chris Gregoire was in the middle of a 10:30am press conference when the latest troupe of protesters showed up in the Capitol building. Today's chant, which provided a grim soundtrack as she took questions about lower workers' comp rates and unemployment insurance: "They cut, we bleed, revenue is what we need."
More than 75 mental health care workers from the Service Employees International Union Health Care 1199—workers from all across the state—came to Olympia today to protest the $693 million in proposed human services cuts, including the complete elimination of the Basic Health Plan (state health insurance for poor people) to save $44 million, and more than $50 million in line item cuts for specific mental health services. (The mental health care workers I talked to weren't versed in the numbers, but as SEIU 1199 communication director Linnae Riesen put it: "The dollar figure is devastation."[pullquote]"The dollar figure is devastation."—Linnae Riesen, SEIU Health Care 1199.[/pullquote]
It was impossible to ignore the chants in Gregoire's conference room—she visibly winced as they started up—and the questions turned from the topic at hand to the SEIU protesters marching through the building.
What would you say to the protesters if a contingent of the protesters came in this office right now? a reporter asked.
"I hear their voices," Gregoire said, but then she flipped it: "And I hope the 6.7 million people of this state hear their voices too. Many of these people have no place else to go." Gregoire said that if voters don't pass her half-penny sales tax, "they will be homeless, they will not have health care, they will not have food. I hope the people of Washington stand with me and support a half penny."
Gregoire has proposed a temporarily raising the sales tax from 6.5 percent to seven percent to raise $494 million to buy back some the programs she has proposed for cuts. However, those buybacks wouldn't do much to address the SEIU workers' concerns, restoring just $42 million of the $693 million in human services cuts, not including the Basic Health Plan.
Upstairs, the SEIU members, including mental health workers from Navos mental health center in West Seattle—a community mental health service organization that stabilizes patients before transferring them to Western State Hospital—had gathered around state Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Seattle) in the hallway outside the house chamber urging him not to support the cuts. Case workers at Navos, such as Kurt Ofsthus, say the cuts are turning Navos into a "de facto mental health hospital like Western State" because the the wait list there is so longe, while turning emergency rooms, the step before Novus, into de facto community mental health centers. There are 68 beds at Navos and Ofsthus says they fill up every six hours.
"Our message to legislators," he says, "is that the cuts are compounding the problem by turning people who shouldn't need high-level services into patients who need high-level services because they're not getting their basic care."
Health care workers make their case to Rep. Reuven Carlyle
It's cuts like these, perhaps, that will fulfill Gregoire's wish that the public take notice.
Incidentally, at her press conference, Gregoire was boasting about workers comp reform from last session which was now saving businesses $150 million this year basically by lowering payouts to injured workers. “This couldn’t come at a better time for Washington businesses and workers,” Gregoire said. “Thanks to the reforms we passed earlier this year and the hard work of our state employees, businesses will have more money to hire and get Washingtonians working again.” (She was also boasting about lowering businesses unemployment insurance rates announcing that 80 percent of businesses would be paying lower rates for a savings of $500 million now—a reform that also angered labor because it meant less for workers.)