The crowd was small but those who did show up on a rainy evening had plenty to say.
About 30 people, including a contingent from Larch Corrections Center, showed up Tuesday night for a town hall on the state budget deficit hosted by state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, at the Clark County Public Service Center.
Wylie, elected this month to the 49th District seat she had held by appointment, wanted to know how her constituents feel about proposed cuts in state spending and whether they support new revenue to avert some of the most painful cuts.
The Legislature convenes Monday for a monthlong special session to deal with a projected $2 billion shortfall in the state’s current 2011-13 budget cycle.
Wylie made her own feelings known from the start.
“I will be backing proposals for new revenue,” she said. “We have thinned the soup enough.”
But even if lawmakers agree to refer tax increases to voters, “We will still have to make cuts,” she added. “There is no new revenue that will prevent some cuts
She said her own priorities will be to protect education, jobs and services to vulnerable adults.
Later, Wylie said she’s “still open” but undecided on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to ask voters for a three-year, half-cent increase in the state sales tax. The proposal, which the governor offered Monday, would dedicate the revenue to offsetting cuts to K-12 and higher education, some social service programs and community supervision for ex-offenders.
Six staff members from Larch Corrections Center lined up to denounce a Department of Corrections plan that could close Larch or another minimum-security prison camp and move its inmates to the Monroe Correctional Complex near Everett. Larch has survived two previous closure plans since 2009.
“If Larch Corrections Center is closed, that’s going to be detrimental to the community,” said Larch counselor Robert Stricker. Many agencies depend on Larch prison work crews, he said, and offenders won’t get the same kind of support at the Monroe facility before they transition back into the community.
Stricker and others from Larch said the state needs to take a hard look at Washington State Correctional Industries, the program that uses prisoners to provide food services and manufacture products for state agencies. Stricker called it “the 600-pound gorilla” in the Corrections Department budget that the state won’t touch.
Giving that business to private companies near state prisons would create jobs and save the state money, Stricker said.
Larch counselor Sean Stewart said he’s concerned about a proposal to reduce sentences for low-risk sex offenders. “Releasing prisoners early will jeopardize communities,” he said. “They say they’re low-risk, but the classification system is somewhat flawed.”
Mike Teefy of AARP and the Southwest Washington Agency on Aging and Disabilities said proposed cuts to services for seniors and the disabled are so extreme that “we are in a position where we will have to insist on an all-revenue budget.”
Cuts in the governor’s budget would eliminate services for thousands of seniors and disabled people statewide, he said, including in-home care, transportation, dental treatment and the nursing ombudsman program, which investigates complaints of nursing home abuse.
Terry Wieber, a clinic coordinator for Sea Mar Community Health Centers in Vancouver, said more and more people are turning to nonprofit clinics as they lose state-subsidized health care. She said her clinic is seeing increasing numbers of patients who urgently need to see a specialist but can’t find one who will treat them. Two nonprofit clinics in Washington already have closed their doors because they can’t afford to continue providing services, she said.
With the proposed elimination of two state programs that provide health care for the poor, “It’s making us fear that it’s going to get worse,” she said.
Ed Cote, a retired administrator for the Division of Children and Family Services, said the cumulative impact of proposed cuts to mental health services, domestic violence prevention and drug and alcohol treatment would be devastating to families of children at risk.
“You simply don’t get kids out of the system in this state” without those programs that provide intervention, he said. If the cuts go through, “You will see an immediate spike in the number of children in state care and the number who need care.”
Cote, Clark County’s Democratic Party national committeeman, said he supports the half-cent increase in the sales tax and is willing to ring doorbells and work for its passage.
Most of the small audience agreed. When Wylie asked for a show of hands of those who support the sales tax increase, nearly every hand in the room went up.