Protesters spend night inside Washington state Capitol

The OlympianApril 6, 2011 

About 75 activists protesting the Legislature's pending budget cuts have prepared to camp overnight inside the state Capitol this evening. The group is being allowed to sack out in sleeping bags on the hard Rotunda marble floor, despite gentle efforts by authorities to shoo them away.

"As long as they are law abiding and peaceful we'll let them" stay, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said around 8 p.m. after the gentle requests went unheeded. Batiste said he could see no risk to public health or safety – so far.

The group, led by advocacy group Washington Community Action Network, brought an estimated 400 people to the Capitol Campus earlier in the day and many chanted inside and outside a House Ways and Means meeting to disrupt it for a few minutes in the mid-afternoon.

Their numbers dwindled from about 200 in the early evening to less than 100 after the Department of General Administration and troopers asked them around 7 p.m. to leave voluntarily. GA director Joyce Turner said the building closes at 7 and that a state administrative law forbids camping on campus.

"The people in here are going to stay," Will Pittz, executive director for W-CAN, said flatly.

Fatima Morales, an organizer with the group, said people arrived from Yakima, Spokane, Seattle and other places to protest budget cuts and advocate for closing tax exemptions for special interests, including large out of state banks.

The protest was the second in a wave of four at the Capitol this week – with another planned by mental health workers in the Service Employees International Union 1199NW, who are striking Thursday. A larger rally on Friday is expected to draw 5,000 people – making it among the largest since a major teachers’ protest drew more than 25,000 people in 2003.

The sleepover came as House Democrats and Republicans debated and prepared for a late-evening vote on a $32.4 billion operating budget that could go to a House floor vote Friday or Saturday. The rival GOP and Democratic budgets would cut more than $4 billion from the cost of carrying forward state programs at current levels.

A few protesters said they were willing to be arrested if that was what it took to send their message that tax exemptions should be closed for large banks and other interests in order to pay for college operations and health care for the poor.

But Lt. Mark Arras of the State Patrol drew cheers when he told the crowd at 8 p.m., "If you are hoping to stay in the building and wait for us to arrest you, we are not going to do that." He also said: "It doesn't look very comfortable but I understand what you are doing."

Jay Manning, chief of staff for Gov. Chris Gregoire, said there was no interest in confronting the protesters. Chief Batiste and General Administration director Joyce Turner tried to encourage the group to leave, even barring their pizzas from the building in hopes it would lure them outside earlier in the evening.

I talked to a few of the protesters, who want the Legislature to close tax exemptions for out-of-state banks, a sales tax exemption for optional cosmetic surgery and other exemptions to head off some of the budget cuts hitting poor and working families that depend on the state for medical help.

Angela O'Brien-Favro, an activist from Seattle, said she is a single mother with four children ages 12 to 24 and struggles to support the children at home after she lost her job with a non-profit. Her job went away due to budget cuts and she said she had no income since December.

Although she receives state-paid health care for her daughter and some food stamps, O’Brien-Favro said she rejected welfare cash aid from the state and has tried to make it on her own. Even so, she flashed a smile that was missing a tooth and said: "The budget cuts have already affected me."

She explained the gap: Lacking dental insurance and unable to get state help to pay for $1,300 in tooth repairs, she had to opt for an $80 extraction.

I also spoke to an immigrant couple from Bellevue, Yolanda and Rafael Gonzales. Yolanda said they want to block the budget cuts.

Their daughter gets children's health coverage but because they are citizens, she said they would not lose health coverage under the budget plans House Democrats and Republicans have offered. "But we need to build the support for all the families," Yolanda Gonzales added.

The overnight protest appeared to be the first since March 2000 when striking Kaiser Aluminum workers locked out of their plant in Spokane came to the Capitol. A few slept overnight on the hard marble of the Rotunda.

Then-Gov. Gary Locke sat and talked with some of the strikers, who wanted a bill to pass that would have given them unemployment benefits while they were locked out. But the bill never went anywhere – as House Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee, used rules in place during a 49-49 partisan tie in the House to block the measure from moving.

It remains to be seen whether the protesters can do any better this time. Democrats control the House and Senate, but Initiative 1053 requires a two-thirds vote to pass tax increases or close exemptions.

And Republicans said again today they won't support tax increases. That leaves a ballot measure as the option, which Democrats could arrange with a simple majority vote in the House and Senate.

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