Budget impasse has state workers fretting

Pam Olekas, a records clerk at Olympic Corrections Center in Forks, remembers getting paychecks in the form of IOUs as a California prison system employee when that state went without a budget more than two decades ago.

She’s hoping a similar fate doesn’t befall her fellow Washington state employees, many of whom could be furloughed if lawmakers fail to reach a budget deal in the next two weeks.

“I think that right now people are thinking, ‘Well, that is not going to happen (here),’” Olekas, a shop steward for the Teamsters union at the prison, said Friday, adding that many of the more confident workers are correctional officers whose jobs would continue in a state government shutdown.

But Olekas worries “because none of us thought Washington, D.C., would go the way it did either. I don’t think we can be so naive to think it won’t happen, because it very well could.”

Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget and policy leaders hope to know better this week which state functions might be kept running in the event of a state government shutdown on July 1 due to the Legislature’s ongoing failure to pass a budget that pays for operations past the month’s end.

Lawmakers began their second special session on Wednesday with the House and the Senate high-centered on spending and taxes. The two sides came together late Thursday night on a couple of smaller issues, and legislative leaders and Inslee’s top deputies still think they can find a budget agreement that closes a $1.2 billion budget shortfall for 2013-15 and averts a shutdown.

But nothing is certain in politics. Washington has never started a budget year without a spending plan in place.

State agency directors, statewide elected officials, legal experts, labor unions and others are scrambling to figure out which services might continue uninterrupted in the event of a shutdown.

Inslee’s chief of staff, Mary Alice Heuschel, and budget director David Schumacher have asked state agency heads and elected officials to bring back plans by 5 p.m. Monday to outline which services have a legal reason to keep going and how little staff they could get by with for essential work.

Prisons, hospitals, and other institutions serving populations in the care and custody of the state could keep running with at least some staff, according to Inslee’s top team members. Other institutions funded by budgets already approved for 2013-15 — such as the Department of Transportation and the State Patrol — are expected to keep running at some level. And so might functions paid for with funds not appropriated by the Legislature or with federal money — such as Medicaid.

“This is not most essential vs. least essential. It’s very narrowly a legal question about whether there are constitutional or federal mandates that would allow us to keep something open,” Schumacher told reporters last week. “Other than that, things are going to be closed.”

Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the Office of Financial Management has provided one reassurance: Workers will get paid on July 10 as usual, for the work they did through June 30.

But without a budget deal, many state workers would be told to stay home beginning July 1. Many contracts specify that the state give seven-day notice of temporary layoffs, which means the notifications would go out next Monday.

State Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said while it is clear the agency could keep open a dozen prisons with nearly 17,000 offenders in custody, it is less clear what would happen to the community corrections officers who oversee nearly 16,000 offenders under supervision in communities.

Also uncertain is what to do with staffers who monitor the GPS locators for certain high-risk, transient sex offenders still under the state’s watch. Other DOC employees help transport of prisoners — which requires the kind of records work that Olekas does — and others do gang intelligence work that is shared with local police.

“It’s going to be a long weekend for us to figure out what operations would look like without an operational budget,” Lewis said last week.

Budget negotiators also were working the weekend. The Senate is calling members back Monday afternoon, and the House expects its rank-and-file members to return Tuesday. That is also the day when lawmakers get the latest two-year forecast for tax revenues and caseloads for schools, social services and prisons, which could provide them a clearer picture of the budget challenge they face.

The state Treasurer’s Office is taking the position that in the event of a shutdown it should stay open with all 63 employees working since it has a checkbook function for other state agencies. It also has investment and money-management responsibilities for Transportation, Licensing and other agencies that expect to have some functions operating during a shutdown, and it also manages investments for local governments.

“We’re taking the position that the Treasurer’s Office should remain open in order to protect the financial credit of the state and the credit worthiness,” said Scott Merriman, legislative and policy director for Treasurer Jim McIntire.

The Office of the Secretary of State has been looking into what work its exempt employees can do. For instance, the agency is likely to have someone on hand to receive initiative petitions ahead of the July 5 deadline even if the rest of government shutters, and its corporations division runs on non-appropriated funds, spokesman Dave Ammons said.

“This is uncharted territory here. Our employees are very concerned about the uncertainty and about the potential of halting programs that they believe are essential, such as the address confidentiality program for battered spouses,” Ammons said in an email. The agency also runs a state library, archives and has concerns about federally mandated elections duties.