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They have plundered reserves, enacted hiring freezes and engaged in all manner of budgetary voodoo to shield us from the pain.
But now state governments -- reeling from a historic free fall in tax revenue -- have run out of tricks. And Americans are about to feel it.
"The easy budget fixes are long gone," Corina Eckl, fiscal program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in a statement. "Only hard and unpopular options remain."
That leaves lawmakers in the Olympia statehouse slugging it out over what to cut.
The governor has proposed pay freezes and layoffs for teachers and other state employees, a $350-million reduction in funding for higher education, closure of 13 state parks, early release for low-risk prisoners, and a 42% reduction in the state's popular health insurance program for the working poor -- a program that provides last-resort coverage to 104,000 people.
The plan also would eliminate cash grants and health insurance for about 16,000 state residents who are temporarily disabled. The proposal wasn't some exaggerated public relations ploy to lure federal stimulus cash: In fact, it already factors in about $1 billion in federal aid. The reality has been sobering for a state that has prided itself on generously funded social programs.