Former state Rep. Dave Mastin can't resist a sports analogy when it comes to saving jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary.Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.
Mastin, recently retained as a lobbyist by the Port of Walla Walla, likens himself to a quarterback. He's got a number of plays in his pocket related to proposed cuts at the penitentiary. He'll pick the best one depending on circumstances on the field. Or, in this case, in the Legislature.
"The way I've described it is we're down by five points and we know that we have to throw the ball into the end zone," Mastin said last week while on a trip to Olympia. "What we don't know yet is what yard line that we're on. We don't know if we need a Hail Mary pass or whether it's a dive."
Mastin could be considered the coach in this scenario.
As a 12-year veteran of the state Legislature from 1993 to 2004, Mastin has an insider's view of the political decision-making process.
For instance, he knows that the word "unfair" -- as in "it would be unfair if the majority of the 1,580 beds cut across the prison system came from Walla Walla" -- is hardly ever used by state politicians.
"In the Legislature, they never say 'that's fair' or 'that's unfair,'" Mastin said. "What's fair is how many votes you have."
He also served on budget committees at a time when expenditures exceeded revenue and painful cuts had to be made.
That's not to say persauding legislators to save jobs in Walla Walla will be an easy task. State politicians must come up with a plan to cut about $2.7 billion in spending next year.
"With this shortfall, you could eliminate the entire community college system and you'd still be more than a billion dollars short," Mastin added for perspective.
"In this scenario every program in the state, every department in the state is gong to see a reduction. Corrections is no different."
The question, he said, is where the reductions will occur.
Walla Walla's prison -- home to most of the state's worst offenders as well as some of the area's most lucrative jobs -- has already lost about 138 jobs over the past year, said Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz.
The state aims to shave $12 million from the Department of Corrections budget, the equivalent of about 1,580 prison beds. Fewer inmates means fewer employees to supervise them. Consequently, local officials are hoping to hang onto as many jobs as they can here.
Kuntz said the Washington State Penitentiary Community Task Force, made up of local economic development workers, prison staff and concerned citizens, has already had an impact. Originally a consultant studying the issue had focused the cuts at the penitentiary's main institution. But after lobbying by the group, the recommendation was to keep that medium-security operation open while more units were built on the prison grounds.
Kuntz, chairman of the task force, said the challenge for legislators is likely heightened by the recent fatal shootings of four Lakewood, Wash., police officers. Sentencing reform focused on the early release of nonviolent offenders was one approach to reducing the inmate population. But the attacks by Maurice Clemmons, who had been released early from an Arkansas prison, may have legislators changing their minds about leniency.
If anyone can help Walla Walla's position in the fight, it's Mastin, Kuntz said. The former lawmaker has worked on both sides of the aisle and came with recommendations from Republicans and Democrats.
"When that happens it tells you he understands the legislative process and how difficult it is to make some decisions," Kuntz said.
The agreement, signed Dec. 1, retains Mastin for the upcoming legislative session.
The Port will pay him $4,000 per month up to $16,000. The city has agreed to foot $4,000 of that cost. The contract also covers expenses up to $2,400.
Kuntz said the task force recognizes Walla Walla will likely not escape the budget ax completely.
"I think Dave's big emphasis is that if there have to be big cuts they need to be done in an equitable manner," Kuntz said.
Mastin, who has been granted time off to work on the issue by D.A. Davidson, where he works as a financial adviser, said he intends to "hammer" the importance of developing a long-term fix.
"We need a strategy that takes the need for reductions and spending in corrections right now and make sure that those aren't counterproductive to the overall correctional mission," Mastin said.
At the top, is public safety with a bullet, he said.
"Public safety means putting people in jail or prison who need to be there, and the second part is trying to make sure that when they come out of prison they have the life tools they need to not re-offend."