If Christine Gregoire were Santa Claus, the state of Washington has been very naughty indeed. When the governor released her proposed budget for the 2011-2013 biennium in December, a collective groan could be heard as 80 programs and services are to be eliminated in order to address a $4.6 billion shortfall.  Although the cuts, spanning all areas of operation, will affect everyone, some of the reductions will directly impact the minority community.

While big ticket items like the removal of the Basic Health plan and massive cutbacks in education received much attention, loss of services that support minorities exclusively such as medical interpretation, refugee employment assistance, and naturalization preparation have gone largely unnoticed.

Some have called the proposed budget to be against Washington state values, but cutting services that prepare refugees and legal immigrants to obtain their citizenship seems contrary to the values of the United States as a nation.  For most refugees and immigrants, becoming a citizen is the American Dream.

“It’s really disheartening to know that this program is being cut,” says Helen Nguyen, who teaches an ESL citizenship class run by Neighborhood House, while studying for her Masters in Social Work at the University of Washington.  It’s always tough to see a good and much needed program go.”  As part of the cut, she will not be teaching in 2011.

The class serves a dual purpose of teaching English as a second language and, at the same time, getting people ready for the citizenship test by providing materials and access to a fee waiver form – the cost of application is nearly $700 for each person.  For the students, though, it’s not just about citizenship but also understanding what being a citizen means and the pride that comes with it.

Nguyen explains that since the people who need this service are unable to vote, “they understand how valuable this program is and are always excited to know that they will be able to have a say in the government when they become citizens.”

What about those who can vote?

During the last November elections, voters certainly made the governor’s job of balancing the budget significantly more difficult through their decisions.

The income tax ballot measure, Initiative 1098, which the governor supported, and which would have raised over $2 billion per year for health and education by taxing the wealthy, was soundly defeated by the people of Washington.

As a state with no income tax, Washington’s general fund depends heavily on sales tax, so when the economy went into recession and people stopped spending, it simply ran out of money.

Revenue from sales tax also took a hit when voters chose to repeal a tax on candy, bottled water, and soda pop.  In the end, people chose to save pennies on Pepsi and Snickers instead of funding better health and education for ourselves and our children.  Is this the real Washington state value?

Surely that cannot be determined when only about 50 percent of eligible voters actually casted ballots during the 2010 elections – the actual number is 49.82 percent, less than half. In these desperate times, voting is even more important in order to protect community assets.

The next election won’t be for another two years but, in the meantime, there are still ways to let lawmakers know what the minority community needs. During the upcoming January-February legislative session in which the budget and other laws are passed, many groups across the state will gather at the capitol in Olympia to voice their concerns to elected officials in the form of Legislative Days.

Two of these days are especially important: Asian Pacific American Legislative Day (date, TBA) and Refugee & Immigrant Day on February 10. The outcomes of these two days could change the fate of programs like ESL Citizenship.

Nguyen, who now interns at International District Housing Alliance, realizes that the state is in a dire period but stays optimistic. “Hopefully, when the state realizes how important this program is, they will begin to fund it again,” she says.

Who will stand up and makes sure this happen remains to be seen.

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