By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — A special legislative session will begin Saturday morning after Democratic and Republican leaders struck a deal to erase more than half of a projected $1.1 billion deficit in the state budget.
Gov. Chris Gregoire set the date after House and Senate leaders told her their bipartisan accord will cover about $784 million of the shortfall in the budget that runs through June.
With an agreement in hand, legislators and the governor expressed hope the emergency session would only last a day.
Lawmakers said their deal calls for axing about $384 million in spending and diverting $200 million in federal aid received this year into the general fund to help close the gap. They acknowledged Gregoire will go forward with an additional $200 million in reductions she first ordered in September.
The announcement of what may be the state’s first special session of a lame-duck Legislature came a few hours after correctional officers and their families protested the pending cuts in a rain-soaked rally on the steps of the Capitol.
Several hundred people, including children, listened as speaker after speaker warned of how proposed reductions will put the lives of employees and the public at greater risk.
“I send the one I love to a dangerous job in a dangerous place,” began Kim Nichols, whose husband is a correctional officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex. “It is not a matter of if something tragic will happen. It is a matter of when.”
In October, when the deficit stood at roughly $520 million, Gregoire ordered agencies to pare 6.3 percent from their budgets to get rid of the red ink. For the Department of Corrections that amounted to $53 million.
Secretary of Corrections Eldon Vail outlined plans for sweeping changes from closing the Larch Corrections Center and McNeil Island Corrections Center to no longer taking offenders to funerals or deathbed visits unless they are paid for in advance.
He also called for more layoffs, ending incentive pay for those working at three complexes, including Monroe, removing some correctional officers from kitchens in medium-security prisons and eliminating some education and job training programs.
Carl Granger, a Monroe correctional officer for seven years, said reducing positions will increase the threat to worker safety. Those programs are vital to helping them function in society, he said.
“An idle mind is the devil’s playground,” he said.
He said legislators and the public need to better understand what goes on in the institutions where people like him deal with murderers, rapists, child molesters and every kind of violent law-breaking offender — “the worst of the worst” — armed only with a radio, handcuffs and a set of keys.
Saying he’d been assaulted twice by prisoners in his career, he paused and fought back sobs as he revealed, “Some days it’s tough to get up and go to work knowing it might be the last time you see your family.”
“The state of Washington can no longer balance the budget on our backs,” he said.
The majority of those in attendance are members of Teamsters Local 117, which represents officers and other employees in the Department of Corrections. Midway through the rally, a contingent went to Gregoire’s office to deliver five pages of ideas for other places to cut in the department budget.
Among the suggestions are to lay off a number of supervisors and no longer give offenders pocket money upon their release. They also suggest $220,000 a year could be saved by keeping the bakery open at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla rather than go outside to buy baked goods.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.