Funding new facilities at prison is wise

The $42.5 million project — adding new housing units and expansion of a kitchen — will make operating the Washington State Penitentiary more efficient.

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Yes, money is very tight in state government. The Legislature recently balanced the state's two-year budget by trimming nearly $5 billion in spending requests.

But those deep cuts to the operating budget don't mean the state can - or should - put a hold on capital projects. It's important to move forward even as the Great Recession continues its grip on the economy.

Lawmakers wisely authorized a $42.5 million capital budget expenditure for another expansion at the Washington State Penitentiary. This time lawmakers OK'd expansion of the West Complex kitchen and construction of two housing units.

The new construction is critical to replacing the prison's old - very old - main institution, which is inefficient to manage and expensive to operate.

Still, just shutting down the institution without a clear plan of how to replace those beds didn't make sense.

Prison populations go up and down. Washington's population is expected to go up soon and when that occurs, more beds will be needed.

If the old main institution were shut down, it couldn't have been reopened without expensive upgrades to meet new standards.

Yet, just a few years ago, lawmakers considered mothballing the unit. It was a shortsighted view driven by politics and parochial interests. Some lawmakers were looking to expand prisons in their districts because it would be good for their local economies.

We understand that. The penitentiary has been good for Walla Walla's economy with hundreds of steady, well-paying jobs.

But it's clear the best place for new beds is at the penitentiary. The infrastructure is already in place. In addition, this community understands the needs of the penitentiary and has local services - from law enforcement to medical - available.

In short, Walla Walla is the perfect location to expand prison capacity.

The proposed new additions in Walla Walla should allow for a smooth transition when the main institution is eventually closed. This type of long-term planning makes sense.

Still, obtaining the funding wasn't easy. Politics were in play until the end of the legislative session.

Given that, it helped that Sen. Mike Hewitt is the Senate minority leader and Gov. Chris Gregoire favored the project.

Hewitt said he strongly favored the new construction because he would not have been able to support keeping the main institution open. Over time, he said, it would have been a waste of tax dollars and he believes he was elected to make government more efficient.

Approval of this expansion and renovation project was the right decision for the state and is a welcome decision for Walla Walla.

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