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Eye On Olympia

State workers starting to sweat the budget…

From the print paper:

OLYMPIA _ The specter of layoffs is looming over a sector of the economy that rarely sees it: state workers.

As Olympia struggles to bridge a record budget shortfall of $5.1 billion - or more - over the next 2 1/2 years, lawmakers and budget officials say that cutting jobs looks more likely.

“It’s difficult to imagine that we’d be able to balance the budget without there being some reduction in the size of the work force,” said Glenn Kuper, spokesman for the state budget office. Retirements and attrition, he said, aren’t likely to be enough.

“I would say it’s very likely,” state Sen. Margarita Prentice, when asked about layoffs. The Renton Democrat leads the Senate’s budget-writing committee.

There are about 16,000 state-paid workers in the Spokane region, including social workers, probation officers, prison guards, mental health workers and the staff and faculty at two public universities.

Teachers also are largely state paid, but are more insulated from budget woes because the state constitution mandates that funding schools is the state’s “paramount duty.”

The news worsened last week, when a state economist announced that a weak economy has caused the expected $3.2ƒ|billion shortfall to mushroom into a $5.1 billion mess. That’s nearly twice the size of Idaho’s entire general-fund budget.

“It’s worse than anyone has imagined,” said Prentice.

And the shortfall could grow even larger due to growing numbers of students in public schools, apparently as parents pull their children out of private schools.

In Pullman on Saturday, Gov. Chris Gregoire told the Associated Press it could get as bad as $6 billion.

All of which has some state workers worried.

“People that haven’t been here very long are definitely concerned for their jobs,” said Greg Streva, a plumbing foreman at Washington State University. “People are scared.”

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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