News

State budget deadline could mean park closures on Whidbey

By JERRY CORNFIELD

Everett Herald

Closure of state parks could be the result of the state Legislature’s inability to agree on a new budget by July 1.

While legislative leaders insist they are nearing a budget agreement, the governor’s office warned that a failure to meet the deadline would result in a partial government shut down.

For businesses that rely on tourism to bouy their bottom lines, park closures would be “a very sad state of affairs,” said Linda Eccles, executive director of the Coupeville Chamber of Commerce.

“It would be tragic,” Eccles said. “We’d all be affected, up and down the whole island. If you look at the number of tourists our parks bring in, it’s amazing.”

Deception Pass State Park is the busiest park in Washington state with more than two million visitors each year.

Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for state parks, said the affected agencies are doing a sort of “balancing act” until a budget can be reached.

“You want to be optimistic, but you also have to be responsible,” Painter said.

Still, she said, “many believe they will pass a budget, and we don’t want to create undue concern for our visitors. We really do value the people who come to our parks.”

In addition to the closure of state parks, including the five on Whidbey Island, a shutdown would also halt the lottery, and convicted criminals would be monitored less closely outside prison walls.

Those are among the hundreds of programs and services which would be halted or scaled back, according to an analysis released by the Office of Financial Management.

In all, 34 state agencies would be shut down and 24 others would incur a partial cessation, said Mary Alice Heuschel, chief of staff for Gov. Jay Inslee. Twenty-five agencies would continue operating because they are funded wholly or in large part from sources other than the state’s general fund.

Meanwhile, the leader of the state Senate predicted the Legislature can be done Sunday, one day before layoff notices are sent to thousands of state workers.

“We are going to finish on Sunday and there will be absolutely no shutdown of state government,” said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who is a member of the Majority Coalition Caucus ruling the Senate.

Senate and House budget negotiators said Thursday they are making steady progress but are at least a day away from achieving an agreement in principle that can be written up and voted on. House Speaker Frank Chopp declined to say if he thought a budget could be passed by Sunday.

Planning for the shutdown won’t stop until the Legislature acts on a spending plan for the biennium that runs from July 1 though June 30, 2015.

Among those agencies that can expect to be shuttered include the Lottery Commission, Public Disclosure Commission and Liquor Control Board.

Washington’s largest agencies, such as the Department of Social and Health Services and Department of Corrections would curtail some activities while community colleges, universities and the court system will stay open.

Also, the Washington State Patrol and Washington State Ferries will operate because those are funded through the state transportation budget, which has already been signed into law.

Only once before has the legislature come this close to forcing a government shutdown.

That occurred in 1991 when the house and senate approved a budget early June 30 and Gov. Booth Gardner signed it shortly before midnight.

Here is a sample of cuts may result from a governmental shut down:

• Most community supervision of ex-convicts would be halted;

• Prisons would not accept new inmates;

• Offenders in local or tribal jails for violating probation as of June 30 would be released;

• Licensing and regulation of real estate brokers, home inspectors, barbers, cosmetologists and many other professions would be suspended;

• No lottery tickets would be sold or drawings conducted and horse racing at Emerald Downs would halt.

 

Whidbey News-Times reporter Janis Reid contributed to this article.

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