Facing the Ax

Lawmakers are preparing to slice the bare-bones budget further. Here's why you should care.

If you hear an ominous din coming from the houses of Eastern Washington’s legislators, it’s because all of them — Democrat and Republican, senator and representative — are sharpening their metaphorical knives, in anticipation of returning to Olympia next week to cut the budget. Again.

In September, Gov. Christine Gregoire summoned the Legislature for the year’s second special session, after a budget forecast showed a $1.4 billion shortfall. In the supplemental budget she released Monday, Gregoire proposed $2 billion in cuts but also floated the idea of a temporary sales-tax increase, along with other measures to raise revenue to offset some of the cuts.

Nonetheless, many of the cuts could be brutal if enacted. Here are some of the proposed measures and their impacts.

Less Supervision for Parolees

Gregoire would trim $27.1 million from the Department of Corrections’ budget by shortening the length of probations and changing the way violators are dealt with.

The department’s response? Bring it on.

“We would support this even if we weren’t in the middle of a budget crisis,” says DOC spokesman Chad Lewis. “What the history shows, a budget crisis can cause any organization to examine everything that you do and actually result in positive change.”

Gregoire’s proposal would shorten to 12 months the length that a released prisoner is supervised, with the exception of sex offenders, who would be monitored for up to 24 months. Currently, parolees are supervised for about 16 months after leaving prison, Lewis says.

It would also change the way parole violators are dealt with. Currently, those who violate the terms of their parole can be jailed for up to three months, based on the decision of a hearing officer. The proposed reforms would allow community corrections officers to immediately throw violators in jail for four days, Lewis says.

“I see no evidence that this has any long-term [positive] impact on behavior,” Lewis says of the longer jail times. “In fact, it could actually make them more of a risk, because offenders likely come out jobless, homeless and destabilized.”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he is supportive of reforming the probation system. But he says offenders who have committed violent crime should be supervised for longer than 12 months.

Violent criminals “should be treated the same as the sex offenders,” Knezovich says. “Because those are the people who have already shown that they have a propensity to hurt people.” 

However, money from the proposed sales-tax increase would be allocated to offset this cut, Gregoire says.

County Fair Loses Funds

You could still bring your prize hog to the county fair if a $3 million cut to the Department of Agriculture’s budget for state fairs is approved. But it might not be worth the money.

“If we were to cut our premiums, I just don’t think people would come,” says Rich Hartzell, director of the Spokane County Interstate Fair, which receives about $50,000 in state dollars to pay for cash prizes in agriculture, arts and crafts exhibitions, he says.

The agriculture categories would be particularly hard-hit, he says, because prize money is an incentive for people to bring their livestock from farm to fair.

Were state fair money to be cut, Hartzell anticipates smaller cash prizes or cutbacks in other attractions. In Eastern Washington counties — like Stevens, Lincoln and Pend Oreille — state money makes up between 25 and 50 percent of the fair’s entire budget, he says.

“So then you have kind of a domino effect,” Hartzell says. “If the animals aren’t here, the people aren’t going to be as likely to come to the fair, because that’s what people want to see.”

Spokane Rehab Center Closes

One of the few items in Gregoire’s budget proposal that solely affects Spokane is a proposal to close Pioneer Center East, a state-funded in-patient drug rehab facility.

Closing it would save $2.1 million. It could also mean that seriously addicted people would end up in jail or on the streets, says Hillary Young, vice-president of policy and communications at Pioneer Health Services.

“You’re cutting a third of the beds for the sickest of the sick,” Young says. While the facility is state-funded, the building is owned and operated by Pioneer, a nonprofit. “I think the biggest problem is that when you cut programs like this, they can’t just bounce back.”

Though the facility, located on Garland Avenue, takes in about 80 patients a year from Spokane, many of the center’s 283 clients come from elsewhere in the state.

“Our concern is that it would negatively impact our ability to put folks into in-patient treatment and keep them in an area [where] they reside” and closer to their families, says Scott Morris, chief U.S. probation officer for the eastern district of Washington. Addicts from Spokane who are released from federal prison are occasionally sent to the facility to get clean, says Morris. If Pioneer Center East closed, the only other option would be a facility in Yakima.

Were it to lose state money, says Young, “Pioneer Center, as it is today, would cease to exist.” The people turned away from the facility would have to go to Pioneer’s other drug rehabilitation center 70 miles north of Seattle, in Sedro-Woolley, which is already low on open beds. 

College Kids Lose Work-Study

Students could lose their jobs if the Legislature takes Gregoire up on her recommendation to suspend college work-study programs next fall term. The move would save $8.1 million.

State work-study has seen its funds cut in half over the last two years, says Rachelle Sharpe, director of student financial assistance for the state Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“What we’ve seen is that the demand for financial aid is outstripping the resources. To eliminate state work-study would worsen that,” Sharpe says. She says a recent survey of work-study students found that 71 percent of respondents stated that they would have to drop out of school without the program. About 7,500 students are currently enrolled.

Rhosetta Rhodes, chief of staff to Whitworth University’s president, says the cut would make nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Spokane County suffer.

“They’re not just impacting students drastically. [Nonprofits] are heavily relying on work-study students to supplement and augment staff,” Rhodes says.

At least, they are for now. 

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About The Author

Chris Stein

Chris Stein is a staff writer at The Inlander. He covers social services, downtown Spokane, Eastern Washington and Spokane city hall. His work has been published by the Associated Press, VeloNews and the Santa Barbara Independent. He was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.