Washington State Penitentiary escapes budget ax so far

There is still time for things to change quickly, Mastin cautions.

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WALLA WALLA — As the legislative session approaches its halfway point, what’s in store for the Washington State Penitentiary remains a question mark.

But, at present, it’s a hopeful question mark, said Dave Mastin, a lobbyist hired by the Port of Walla Walla.

"My sense is things are going to remain positive for us. We’re not running into a buzz saw yet," Mastin told members of the Walla Walla Valley Community Task Force Friday.

Mastin’s comments were part of an update he delivered on his activities in Olympia, where he has been working to press the county’s case for limiting or mitigating cutbacks at the prison, which is the area’s second-largest employer.

Legislators are looking at cuts in the Department of Corrections, including closure of the prison’s main institution, to save approximately $12 million in operating costs over the 2009-2011 biennium. The closure was among moves identified in a study completed last fall for the Office of Financial Management which identified how to eliminate 1,580 beds in the prison system.

During an hour-long conference call, Mastin said the past two weeks have been filled with meetings with House and Senate legislative leaders, members of the governor’s staff and many others concerning how the budget is shaping up and what it may mean for the penitentiary.

"I feel more positive about the direction we’re going, but we haven’t hit the cutoff point (for legislation) yet," he told the group Friday. "A lot of things can change quickly."

A key provision in the feasibility study’s final draft is that $41 million in capital funds be found to build a new medium security unit at the prison. While that isn’t likely to happen, the task force has requested the Legislature approve $6.8 million to provide design money for a new medium security unit, a new close-custody unit and design and construction of the West Complex kitchen facilities.

Whether that amount will be found is still uncertain.

"We have not seen any specific items in the capital budget relating to Washington State Penitentiary," said Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz.

Another factor is that 400 more inmates are expected to be in the corrections system this year than projections had called for, Kuntz said. While that could mean the penitentiary could be called on to house those extra numbers, Mastin cautioned that it was too early to tell what effect that increase will have on plans.

As the legislative negotiations continue, Mastin said one thing that has helped has been the Walla Walla community’s support of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan to move ahead with the closures recommended in the feasibility study, including those affecting the penitentiary.

"I think it’s a smart strategy on our part," he said.

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