Bad budget, privatized liquor year’s top state stories

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SEATTLE — As the effects of the Great Recession continue to be felt across Washington, it’s not surprising that several of the top 10 state news stories of 2011 can be traced to the worst economic downturn in 80 years.

From billion-dollar deficits to soaring tuition costs to angry street protests, the financial crisis played out on front pages in many different ways. The resolution of high-profile court cases that captured the world’s attention, as well as Washington’s, and new hope for long-suffering Cougar football fans were also among the stories that made the cut.

What follows are the top 10 Associated Press news stories for 2011, as voted on by editors in Washington.

1 State revenue forecasts continue to drop, forcing cuts

Like kids waiting for Santa Claus to arrive, state lawmakers kept hoping and hoping for good budget news in 2011. It never came. A series of grim economic forecasts left the Legislature staring at big deficits throughout the year. Lawmakers passed a $32 billion, two-year operating budget that closed a $5 billion shortfall. They made $4.6 billion in cuts and transferred about $500 million from other accounts to balance the books. Health care, K-12 education and public safety were among the areas that took a hit. Almost as soon as they’d left Olympia, however, the budget was out of whack again. Gov. Chris Gregoire called the Legislature back for a late-year special session, asking them to find another $2 billion in reductions. Democrats and Republicans settled on a plan that provided a temporary, $480 million fix through cuts, transfers and delayed payments. That means they’ll again have to look for hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts — or possible new tax revenue — when they come back in January.

2 Voters approve initiative privatizing liquor sales

Washingtonians decided in November that the state no longer needs to be in the liquor business. Voters approved a plan to privatize spirits sales and dismantle controls that have been in place since Prohibition, siding with retailing giant Costco in the costliest initiative campaign in state history. Costco Wholesale Corp. committed $22 million to supporting the measure — $6 for every registered voter. Costco had backed another privatization measure that failed in 2010 with 47 percent of the vote. Acknowledging that the 2010 proposal wasn’t ideal, supporters returned with a plan that includes more revenue for state and local governments as well as stricter controls on which stores can sell liquor. The state-run liquor stores will cease operations by June 1, 2012.

3 Legislature allows universities, colleges to set their own tuition rates

State lawmakers cut about $500 million in state support to higher education. They also allowed the state’s universities to set their own tuition rates, authority that had previously rested with the Legislature. In June, University of Washington regents voted a 20 percent hike in tuition and fees, the largest in the school’s history. The annual cost for in-state undergrads jumped from about $8,700 to $10,574. Many now complain that a college education is becoming unaffordable, especially for middle-class students who often don’t qualify for financial aid packages.

4 Amanda Knox acquitted in Italian court, returns to Seattle

Followed by a throng of international media, Amanda Knox returned to Seattle in early October after an Italian appeals court threw out her conviction in the sexual assault and fatal stabbing of her British roommate. Knox was studying abroad in Perugia, Italy, when Meredith Kercher was killed in 2007. Knox was overcome with emotion as she returned to her hometown. “Thank you for being there for me,” Knox tearfully told her supporters in front of a crowd of reporters at Sea-Tac Airport. Knox’s acquittal was fueled by doubts over DNA evidence. Prosecutors maintain that Knox’s DNA was found on the handle of a kitchen knife believed to be the murder weapon, and that Kercher’s DNA was found on the blade. But an independent review — ordered at the request of the defense — found that police conducting the investigation had made glaring errors.

5 Boeing, Machinists union agree on building the newest 737 in Renton

In December, Boeing and Puget Sound-area machinists achieved something that has largely eluded them in recent years: labor peace. Unionized Machinists voted to approve a four-year contract extension that grants the company a long stretch of stability and ends an unfair labor practices complaint. Boeing promised that if workers approved the pact, the company would build the new version of the popular 737 in the Puget Sound region, while the Machinists said they’d drop their allegations that Boeing opened a nonunion assembly plant in South Carolina in retaliation for previous strike. Machinists went on strike in 2005 and 2008. The latter strike helped delay delivery of Boeing’s first 787, costing the company dearly. The new deal extends the Machinists’ contract until September 2016.

6 Occupy protesters disrupt Legislature, take to streets around the state

Taking their cue from protests that began in New York and spread around the world, people in Seattle, Olympia and elsewhere took to the streets to protest economic inequality. What began as a protest movement morphed into something else — encampments attracted the homeless and disenfranchised, gatherings that created headaches for local officials. In Seattle people camped at Westlake Park downtown, before the city asked them to leave. They then set up at a nearby community college, which also eventually gave them the boot. Protesters sometimes disrupted traffic and one clash with police resulted in an 84-year-old woman’s being pepper-sprayed — her picture went viral and ran in newspapers and on websites globally. In Olympia there were arrests as hundreds of Occupy protesters disrupted the first several days of the special legislative session.

7 “Barefoot Bandit” sentenced to more than seven years in prison

Colton Harris-Moore, the “Barefoot Bandit” who gained international notoriety while evading police across the country in stolen planes, boats and cars during a two-year crime spree, was sentenced in Coupeville to more than seven years in prison in December after pleading guilty to dozens of state charges. Judge Vickie Churchill said “this case is a tragedy in many ways, but it’s a triumph of the human spirit in other ways.” She described Harris-Moore’s upbringing as a “mind numbing absence of hope,” and believed he was remorseful. Harris-Moore’s escapades earned him international fame and a movie deal to help repay his victims. Fox bought the movie rights in a deal that could be worth $1.3 million. Harris-Moore doesn’t get to keep any of the money under the terms of a federal plea deal.

8 Seattle voters approve tunnel replacement for Alaskan Way Viaduct

Seattle voters in August overwhelmingly endorsed a plan to build a tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, finally ending a long-running argument over what to do about the state highway that runs through the downtown of the state’s biggest city. While the referendum was a technical one, it came to be a seen as a vote on the entire, $3.1 billion tunnel replacement. After voters gave the OK, Mayor Mike McGinn said he would no longer oppose the plan. McGinn had argued the tunnel was too expensive and too risky. State lawmakers chose the tunnel option in 2009 after nearly a decade of debating how to replace the viaduct, which carries 110,000 vehicles per day but is vulnerable to earthquakes. Construction on the tunnel -- the largest yet to be built in the world -- is slated for completion in 2016.

9 Feds condemn Seattle Police Department in scathing report

In December the U.S. Justice Department said Seattle police had engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violated federal law and the Constitution. Investigators said inadequate supervision and training had led officers to grab weapons such as batons and flashlights too quickly and to escalate confrontations even when arresting people for minor offenses. An investigation was begun last spring following the fatal shooting of a homeless Native American woodcarver and other reported uses of force against minority suspects. Mayor Mike McGinn has ordered Police Chief John Diaz to implement the reforms.

10 Washington State fires football coach Paul Wulff, hires Mike Leach

Following four losing seasons that saw the Cougar football team go 9-40, coach Paul Wulff was fired after his squad lost the Apple Cup to the rival Huskies. Washington State then surprised many by announcing they’d landed Mike Leach, the pirate-loving, iconoclastic former Texas Tech Coach. Leach will easily make the most money of any WSU coach ever, topping the $1 million salary given to former basketball coach Tony Bennett. His contract calls for a base salary of $2 million per year, plus $250,000 a year in ancillary payments, plus performance incentives. “We are on our way, in my opinion, to a great future in Cougar football,” athletic director Bill Moos said. Cougar fans will wait and see.