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Originally published Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Frustrated Gregoire says 'status quo does not work'

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who once advocated boosting state spending by billions of dollars, has become the budget-cutter in chief. She's rolled out unprecedented proposals to slash services to the poor, eliminate state agencies and restructure government as a way to close a budget shortfall approaching $5 billion. And she's done it with an air of frustration, impatience, and a certain weariness with Olympia politics.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire, who once advocated boosting state spending by billions of dollars, has become the state's budget-cutter in chief.

She's rolled out unprecedented proposals to slash services to the poor, eliminate state agencies and restructure government as a way to close a budget shortfall approaching $5 billion.

And she's done it with an air of frustration, impatience and a certain weariness with Olympia politics. "Let me repeat," she said recently when announcing her controversial plan to pull the state ferry system from a sea of red ink. "If not this, then what? The status quo does not work."

This is not the Gregoire we're used to: The career government official is known more for building consensus than shaking up the state Capitol.

It's a Twilight Zone where members of her own Democratic Party are balking at some of the proposals, while Republicans largely applaud. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, recently greeted the governor before she met with members of his caucus saying, "welcome to the friendly caucus."

Gregoire says her transformation is a product of the enormous budget shortfall — and an evolution in her thinking.

"I have matured," she said during an interview at her office last week. "I've tried hard in a number of ways to accomplish what I wanted and I haven't made the progress I wanted to make.

"Making change, in large part, is about timing around here. Here we sit in a crisis. We're watching businesses fundamentally change, families rethink everything about what they're spending money on. What are we going to do? Sit here and maintain the status quo when we know there is frustration, and not do anything about it? If not now, then when?"

Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, said he's seen this kind of shift before.

"I think she's recognized what a lot of governors recognize when they've been in office for four or five years," he said, noting that former Gov. Gary Locke underwent a similar change in 2003 during an economic downturn.

"When your back is against the wall and the same people are making the same arguments about why their programs shouldn't be cut, at some place you have to make changes," Brunell said.

To understand how big a turnaround this is for Gregoire, consider that during her first four years in office state spending increased 31 percent. Roughly half of the money — about $4 billion — went into education.

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Now much of that additional money for education has been taken back out.

Gregoire says she doesn't have any choice given the budget gap and the reality that no more bailouts will be coming from Congress.

Surprisingly, though, Gregoire also seems unsure that the money she poured into education improved student achievement as much as she'd hoped.

"I came in here determined to make the system work better. To invest more money. I put a lot more money into K-12. But then you sit there and say, 'Why have I not been able to get the result I set out to achieve?' " she said.

Gregoire said she had a Eureka moment over the summer when she concluded that public schools and higher education are too decentralized and balkanized.

She proposed earlier this month a radical restructuring that would create a single education department covering preschool through college. It would be headed by a secretary who'd report to her.

The idea was panned by state Superintendent Randy Dorn, who said he hadn't been thoroughly briefed before it was announced. Dorn sent out a statement saying that "every governor I've known has wanted more power."

Dropping bombshells like her education overhaul on the Legislature is a marked departure from the way she's operated in the past.

When running for governor in 2008, Gregoire said, "Legislation is a whole lot more stable and sustainable if you bring all the diverse parties to the table and try to see if you can make steps forward without shoving something down someone's throat."

Gregoire said she's abandoned that approach, at least for now.

"I'm in a crisis," she said. "I don't have the time. The process I'm willing to work through is the legislative process. We need to step up to it and realize that in a crisis you make tough decisions, you make them timely. You cannot spend years on process. I've shortcut it all."

She's also showing impatience with factions fighting to protect the status quo.

"No matter how hard you try to make change, there are always those who want to protect something or another," she said. "I'll use education because I think it's a perfect example. Do they want to protect it because it's right for the kids? Do they even think about whether it's right for the kids?"

Democrats in the House and Senate have pushed back on some of her plans.

The Democratic chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee said there wasn't much support for Gregoire's idea to hand over the state ferry system — along with some of the responsibility to fund it — to a nine-county, semi-independent regional authority. Some Republicans also attacked the plan.

And Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were skeptical of her proposals to eliminate — not just reduce — certain services to the poor, such as the state Disability Lifeline, which provides cash and health care for unemployable disabled people.

"I don't think it's in our best interest long term as a society to write them off," House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said recently about the people on Disability Lifeline. "Governors have proposed eliminating the program, I think, five times. We're used to this."

Gregoire said it doesn't bother her that not everyone is embracing her proposals. "The reason why I don't get anxious when people say, 'I'm going to save this program or that program' ... is because I had all those thoughts," she said.

Ultimately, after poring over the budget, she decided there was no other option but to cut popular and sorely needed state services.

She expects legislators will reach the same conclusion.

Republicans credit Gregoire for advancing ideas that aim to bring state spending in line with tax collections. But they still complain that a part of the reason the state is in trouble is because Democrats spent too much when the economy was booming.

"I'm tired of saying, 'We told you so,' " Hewitt said, "but in reality if we had made some of these moves (earlier) it wouldn't be as difficult today as it's going to be."

Hewitt said the governor and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate appear to be genuinely interested in working with Republicans. But he has his suspicions why.

"I think they are looking for political cover," he said, "and I think they've gotten themselves in a real mess. I think they've finally recognized there is no new revenue and they're going to take some serious reforms to get out of this."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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