Politics & Government

Budget would slash McNeil Island jobs

The more than 3,000 state-employee jobs that Democrats said would be cut by the budget they unveiled Monday include nearly 200 at the prison on McNeil Island.

The prison will shrink to just one-fifth of its current size, but it will stay open, which is more than some state institutions can say.

The tens of millions of dollars in facility cuts include closure of two adult prisons and of Maple Lane School, where 200 youths are confined in Grand Mound. The juvenile lockup’s closure will mean the loss of about 260 jobs, to be phased out through 2013.

Other facilities escaped, including Rainier School in Buckley and another center for the developmentally disabled in Bremerton.

Downsizing McNeil by 80 percent to 256 minimum-security inmates could be a step toward its eventual closure, but it remains open for now. So does a Southwest Washington prison where space has been cut in half.

“We always tend to take that halfway approach, instead of going full steam,” complained Sen. Rodney Tom.

The Medina Democrat helped write the budget but ended up opposing it as lacking in major efficiencies – including closure of McNeil, which he and some other senators see as one of the state’s most inefficient prisons because of its remote location.

Pierce County legislators argue the prison is needed to cope with a projected increase in inmate population and to provide cheap inmate labor to maintain the island’s sex-offender detention center, which is not affected by the budget cuts.

Pierce lawmakers reluctantly accepted the downsizing, which they had criticized. Democratic Rep. Tami Green said she’s “not jumping for joy” but would not seek to fight it with an amendment. She and Republican Sen. Mike Carrell, both from Lakewood, predicted the prison’s size would rebound.

But legislators’ capital budget, released Monday, would start the process of building a new prison to replace McNeil. Sen. James Hargrove, a Democratic budget negotiator from Hoquiam, said the plan is for the prison to end up somewhere in central Puget Sound.

Lewis and Thurston county lawmakers tried to amend the budget to save Maple Lane School, but couldn’t muster the votes in the House Monday evening.

A consulting firm’s 2009 study concluded that closing Maple Lane is a bad idea because the state lacks other space for juvenile offenders. The same study recommended against closing Pine Lodge women’s prison, another victim of the budget cuts.

House budget chairwoman Kelli Linville said budget writers made sure concerns about institutions’ capacity were addressed.

“There was a lot of hard work done by (negotiators) to make sure that there was appropriate placements for everybody that was going to be moved from one facility to another,” the Bellingham Democrat said.

The capital budget deal provides for borrowing more than $16 million to create new space for the youth displaced by the $6 million Maple Lane closure. Space at other unnamed state facilities would be renovated to take the juveniles, many of whom have mental health problems.

House GOP Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis noted his 20th District, home to Maple Lane and another juvenile facility previously targeted for closure, is represented entirely by Republicans.

“I hope they’re not playing with kids’ lives for political purposes,” DeBolt said.

Linville said majority Democrats minimized politics by looking closely at the consultant’s report, even if they didn’t always follow its suggestions. She pointed out that the budget would close Pine Lodge near Spokane, home of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, one of the state’s most powerful Democrats.