The state economy is on the mend, but an era of budget cuts might not be over at the Department of Corrections.
In a June 13 letter to the directors of agencies within the state with budgets not protected from cuts by the state constitution, the Office of Financial Management explained that the state’s newly-expanded responsibility to pay for basic education could cause a new round of belt-tightening.
“The state’s economy is slowly recovering from its deepest recession in 70 years. Meanwhile, state revenue collections are rebounding at a much slower pace than after previous recessions,” the letter said. “As a result, demands on the state’s resources through inflation and mandatory caseload and other increases continue to outpace revenue growth. This structural fiscal gap is compounded by the fact that the state must continue phasing in legislative commitments to increase K-12 education funding by at least $5 billion over the next two biennia (McCleary v. State of Washington).”
Not only that, but the state’s workforce labor costs continue to rise slowly, the letter said.
So the state asked agencies to identify ways to trim 15 percent from their budgets, just in case.
For the state Department of Corrections, that would equal cuts of $250 million.
The Teamsters were quick to condemn the possibility of cuts.
“The State’s budget crisis is very real, but the answer to the crisis is not further cuts at the Department of Corrections,” said Tracey A. Thompson, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents 6,000 correctional employees statewide. “With all of the cuts and prison closures over the last several years, it is hard to imagine how further reductions will not seriously jeopardize staff safety and public safety.”
In the last four years, the state has already cut $220 million and closed three prisons, while prison populations tripled over the last 20 years, Thompson went on.
“Cuts of this magnitude would likely mean more prison closures and the early release of prisoners into our community. Public safety and the safety of correctional staff would be put at risk. We ought to allocate more resources to protect and retain prison staff, not make their jobs more difficult,” Thompson said.
The problem is that the McCleary decision is going to mean the state has to figure out how to come up with a huge amount of money for basic education, explained Ralph Thomas of the Office of Financial Management.
“The economy is not growing fast enough to keep pace with the growth in demand for services,” he said. “Barring a huge turnaround, we face a pretty significant shortfall before we even begin to address the $1 billion that will be required to meet our constitutional obligation after the McCleary.”
But Steve Gherke, communications director for the Department of Corrections, cautioned that 15 percent cuts are a worst-case scenario.
“This is just an exercise,” he said. “We have to hold out hope that a minimal amount, if anything, comes to fruition.”