Austin Jenkins | KNKX

Austin Jenkins

Olympia Correspondent

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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This story is part of an NPR nationwide analysis of states' revenue and budgets during the pandemic.

In Washington state, tax collections are expected to tumble by $8.8 billion over the next three years. For context, the state's current two-year budget is about $53 billion.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected an appeal by former Washington state Auditor Troy Kelley who sought to have his 2017 convictions for possession of stolen property, filing false tax returns and making false statements overturned.

Kelley was previously sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison, but has remained free while appealing his case. 

Washington’s typically sleepy August primary will test the endurance of voters as they navigate a larger-than-usual crop of candidates. The robust turnout of would-be officeholders may be, at least partially, the result of the state making it easier to qualify for the ballot in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time since Herbert Hoover won the presidency nearly a century ago, the state of Washington won’t have a statewide initiative to the people on the November ballot in a presidential election year.

At the Secretary of State’s office, the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline to submit 259,622 valid voter signatures to qualify an initiative came and went quietly. No campaigns made an appointment to drop off petitions, according to a spokesperson.

A review of Washington’s initiative history reveals that not since 1928 has the November ballot been bereft of an initiative to the people in a year when voters were electing a president. 

Over the objections of a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen state senators, Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) has decided to stick with its plan to repost online the financial disclosure statements of elected officials, candidates and other government officials following a one-month “pause” to review security concerns.

Hours after Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide mandate for people to wear masks in public, a Republican sheriff in southwest Washington appeared to urge open defiance of the order.

“Don’t be a sheep,” Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza said to loud applause from a mostly mask-less crowd gathered in a church parking lot. 

After weeks of relying on voluntary compliance, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday afternoon announced an enforceable, statewide requirement that people wear face coverings when in public, including outdoors when six feet of separation can't be maintained. The new public health order, to be issued by the Secretary of Health, takes effect on Friday.

In a move not seen since the Great Recession, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday canceled pay raises for some state employees and ordered furloughs for many more through at least this fall. The move came the same day a new state revenue forecast projected an $8.8 billion drop in tax collections over the next three years.

Stepping up an attack he began on Twitter last week, President Trump on Monday spent more than four minutes at a White House meeting inveighing against Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the six-block protest area on Capitol Hill now known as CHOP.

As the state of Washington grapples with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers are bracing for a bleak revenue forecast on June 17 that could portend a $10 billion drop in state tax collections over the next three years.

Already, a preliminary forecast in May predicted state revenues would crater by $7 billion over that same time period. The official forecast is likely to be worse. The state’s current two-year budget is approximately $53 billion.

“We know that we are faced with a big problem over the next few years,” said David Schumacher, the governor’s budget director, in a recent call with reporters.

A nearly 100-year-old historical marker has been mysteriously stolen from Washington's Capitol Campus and, with no leads on who took it, the state patrol is now asking the public for help solving the crime. 

The bronze plaque commemorated the location of the home of Washington's first territorial governor, Isaac Ingalls Stevens. Washington's first post-statehood governor, Elisha P. Ferry, also lived there when he served as a territorial governor. 

At the request of a powerful Democratic state senator who warned of “foreign intrusion,” Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) on Sunday temporarily suspended public, online access to the personal financial statements of elected officials, candidates and other public officials.

As Washington Gov. Jay Inslee exerts his emergency powers to battle COVID-19, behind the scenes legislative leaders are exploring the idea of a special session of the Legislature, perhaps as early as next month. 

“We are very much deeply in the weeds on trying to figure that out and I think in the next week or two we should have some more clarity,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat.

Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins was a first grader on a school camping trip near Mount St. Helens when the volcano erupted on May 18, 1980. Austin recently unearthed his scrapbook from that time and interviewed several others who were on that memorable trip. On this 40th anniversary of the eruption, Austin recounts their harrowing escape.

On May 18, 1980, I was 6 years old and about 20 miles, as the crow flies, from Mount St. Helens.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has instructed the state Department of Health (DOH) to prepare to test all nursing home residents and staff for COVID-19 in the coming weeks, according to the physician leading the state’s testing strategy.

“Last week, Governor Inslee gave us the directive to test everyone, both resident[s] and staff in the nursing homes in the state,” said Dr. Charissa Fotinos in an interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.

Previously, the state's goal was to test all residents and staff in facilities where someone had tested positive -- something that has not yet been achieved, according to a Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) spokesperson. 

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee first issued his stay home order in mid-March, Deanna Martinez was supportive. A registered nurse from Moses Lake who’s active in Republican politics, Martinez thought the Democratic governor’s drastic action was necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“I felt like Inslee really did do the right thing as quickly as he possibly could,” Martinez said.

But after eight weeks and two extensions of that order, Martinez’s support for Inslee’s COVID-19 response has evaporated.

“I don’t feel like my voice is being heard … as a person living in rural Washington,” Martinez said.

For the second time in a month, opponents of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s extended “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order – many of them openly carrying firearms -- rallied at the state Capitol Saturday in an event that brought together sign-waving citizens, conservative state legislators, Republican and Libertarian candidates for public office and members of far right groups.

The unpermitted “Hazardous Liberty” event, which drew an estimated 1,500 people and stretched on for more than four hours, was smaller than a previous protest in April, but no less defiant in its message.

At the end of March, Dr. Luke Hansen, an Olympia emergency room physician, was watching news of hospitals in New York overrun with COVID-19 patients. Then he heard Gov. Andrew Cuomo issue a plea for healthcare workers from elsewhere to come to New York to help.

“I really felt a call to go there and help,” Hansen said in an interview this week.

With his current stay home order set to expire in less than a week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday strongly suggested  that, even though the COVID-19 peak appears to have passed, he intends to leave in place most of the current restrictions for the foreseeable future.

“The major part of our order, I believe, will stay in place after May 4th,” Inslee said in a one-on-one interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.

In a dramatic example of COVID-19’s impact on the criminal justice system, the number of people in Washington jails has plummeted in recent weeks, ending virtually overnight an overcrowding problem that plagued many facilities for years. Today, a few of the state’s smallest jails are reporting inmate populations in the single digits.

“Honestly, I would never have expected to see something like this in my lifetime and I’ve been doing this for 20 years now,” said Jose Briones, the chief deputy of the Island County Jail on Whidbey Island where the population has dropped by approximately half.

In recent weeks, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has repeatedly thanked Washington residents for complying with his emergency orders to shutter their businesses, avoid crowds and stay home unless absolutely necessary. He often praises Washingtonians as heroes who are saving lives in the face of a global pandemic.

But while most may be complying with his orders, not all are. In fact, there’s evidence of growing restlessness with the shutdown of the economy, the skyrocketing job losses and the infringement on normal, daily activities. And in some places there are examples of outright opposition.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is facing increasing pressure from state lawmakers to move quickly to reopen certain sectors of the economy, perhaps even before his current “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order expires on May 4.

On Friday, three of the four legislative caucuses sent Inslee a request that he consider allowing a specific set of businesses to reopen, provided they adhere to strict public health guidelines.

After weeks of extraordinary efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, Washington state officials are beginning to talk more openly about easing social distancing restrictions and a sequential unlocking of the economy.

For the first time in Washington history, a Black woman justice will serve on the Washington Supreme Court.

On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Pierce County Superior Court Judge Helen Whitener to an open position vacated by Justice Charles Wiggins who recently retired. She was selected from an original list of 11 applicants.

“Judge Whitener inspires lawyers and non-lawyers alike with her relentless work to raise awareness for matters of race, justice and equity,” Inslee said in a statement.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has generally earned praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But a recent decision has prompted tough words from a fellow Democrat.

Mason County Auditor Paddy McGuire is preparing to hold a special election later this month for fire and school district levies.

Beginning 18 days before the election, Washington law requires that he offer in-person voter registration.

But because of COVID-19, McGuire said the county has closed his building and he doesn’t think in-person registration is a safe idea. So, he asked the governor’s office to use its emergency powers to waive the requirement for this election. The answer back, he said, was “no.”

Courtesy KOMO TV

A large disturbance Wednesday evening at the Monroe Correctional Complex was likely triggered by rising tensions over COVID-19, according to the Washington Department of Corrections. So far, six inmates at the facility have tested positive for the virus.

As a psychiatric social worker at Washington’s Western State Hospital, Maria Claudio’s job is to care for some of the most complex mental health patients in the state.

But these days when she gets home, she has a second job waiting for her: making homemade masks for her colleagues who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A prisoner at the Monroe Correctional Complex has tested positive for COVID-19, making him the first incarcerated individual in a Washington prison known to have contracted the virus.

In anticipation of state revenues cratering because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday vetoed more than $200 million of new spending from the supplemental budget passed by state lawmakers last month.

Among the bigger ticket items Inslee eliminated was more than $100 million to hire 370 more school guidance counselors statewide and $35 million for para-educator training.

Arthur Longworth is 35 years into a life without parole sentence for aggravated murder. He’s currently housed in Cell Block A, a medium security unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex, a hundred-year-old prison that’s been featured in movies. 

“It’s four tiers high, 40 cells long, which is about as far as you can see, and higher than you’d want to fall if you fell off the fourth tier,” said Longworth, who is an award-winning prison writer

While he has a single cell, Longworth said many of the six-by-nine cells hold two men. A couple of weeks ago, they were all put on quarantine after a prison staffer tested positive for COVID-19.

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