Sequester could cost state millions

Budget gurus for the state of Washington are still calculating the actual effects of the federal spending cuts known as sequestration, but what is known is that vulnerable populations — the disabled, seniors, poor preschoolers — will feel the brunt.

The cuts, which began taking effect March 1, are expected to carve almost $83 million out of state-administered programs over the next seven months. The timing and effects vary by program.

“We absolutely expect to be impacted by sequestration, but we have limited information about how and when at this point.” said Tim Church, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, which anticipates big cuts in food assistance for low-income mothers. “We’re waiting to hear from multiple federal agencies about multiple federal grants so we can determine what our next steps are.”

Bigger troubles might be ahead. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan told union activists Thursday that he figures sequestration could erase $500 million from the state’s revenue forecast, increasing the potential 2013-2015 budget gap to $3 billion if lawmakers opt to direct more money into K-12 schools and other needs.

The $85 billion in federal across-the-board cuts, if carried out fully across the country, could subtract $3.4 billion or 4 percent, from the state’s economy, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Defense cuts could translate into furloughs for up to 16,200 civilian workers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and another 16,000 Navy employees in the Northwest, most of whom are in Washington state. All told, Financial Management estimates potential job losses across the economy are estimated at 43,151 in 2013 and 54,359 in the following year if Congress fails to act to blunt the effect or reverse the cuts.

House Republicans on Wednesday approved a plan that would give the Defense Department flexibility to determine where cuts should apply, and Senate Democrats are pushing to give additional Cabinet agencies similar authority.

But without certain relief in sight, agencies are gearing up to absorb the reductions.

Sandy Nelson, assistant superintendent for early learning at Educational Service District 113 based in Olympia, said ESD leaders expect to decide by the end of the month what changes they will make to the district’s Head Start program. The cuts could mean the closure of a couple of classrooms at the facilities she oversees in Thurston, Mason and Grays Harbor counties.

She estimated that upward of three dozen children would be unable to get services.

“I’ve been in Head Start since 1977 and have never ever had to do this,” she said.

Overall, Head Start programs in Washington stand to lose $9 million. State schools Superintendent Randy Dorn as well as advocates at both the Washington State Association of Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program say that could mean 1,090 kids from low-income homes will not get into the preschool programs next fall.

“The impact here will be huge. In (Washington) we’re only serving about 38 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in (Head Start) and ECEAP, and this just makes things worse,” said Katy Warren, deputy director of the state Head Start association.

Cuts for public schools are also looming, although most won’t happen until fiscal year 2014. Those include more than $14 million in Title I funds that pay for instructional staff, extended-time programs and other help for students in poor K-12 schools and more than $14 million for supplemental services for disabled students.

Dorn says one cut hitting during the current budget year is $2 million for federal “impact aid” that goes to school districts that have large areas of tax-exempt federal lands such as military bases and American Indian reservations.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said this week that higher education cuts could exceed $900,000 in the area of financial aid, causing reductions in aid packages for 1,357 public and private school students.

The impacts also will be felt across a swath of programs administered by the state. Some of the bigger reductions include:

n The Department of Social and Health Services anticipates $10.6 million in reductions, including a $2.1 million cut that would reduce services for about 1,600 foster-care children, agency spokesman Thomas Shapley said.

Another $2.8 million reduction could affect as many as 1,300 people with disabilities, preventing them from getting unemployment plans or vocational rehabilitation help.

$1.9 million cut to substance abuse programs could cause 3,000 DSHS clients to receive less treatment and prevention services as county outpatient and tribal contracts are reduced.

And a $494,000 cut in mental health funds would reduce treatment, prevention and wellness assistance for about 7,200 clients, which DSHS says could increase hospitalization and shift more mentally ill people into homelessness or the criminal justice system.

Shapley said the mega-agency is exploring potential options for limiting the harm. Those could include use of leftover funds from prior budget years, asking state lawmakers for help, prioritizing cuts inside grant programs that allow it, and time limits or benefit caps for participants to avoid halting services.

n Cuts at the Department of Health could eliminate $7.9 million from the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program. An estimated 13,300 clients would lose some nutritional assistance, according to OFM. Another $2.5 million in capital grants for improving local waste water and drinking water systems could disappear, and reductions in federal immunization funding could slash vaccine availability for more than 4,000 kids.

n The Employment Security Department is waiting for more direction from the U.S. Labor Department on how to put $42 million in benefit cuts into place for those receiving weekly jobless benefits.

n Nearly $3.1 million less in the home-energy assistance means 4,800 fewer households get help with heating bills from the Commerce Department.

Other Commerce cuts include $526,000 less in aid to crime victims, which results in $2,100 less for 79 different providers of services to victims of sexual assaults and $4,000 less for each of 43 domestic-violence agencies.

Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688