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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It’s do-or-die week in the Washington Legislature. A budget deal will have to come together over the next several days if lawmakers are to finish business within the 30-day special session.

Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

Public records show JP Morgan Chase is collecting more than $100,000 a month in ATM fees from welfare recipients in Washington. But the bank doesn't disclose the fee at the cash machine. This is happening at the same time the state has cut the monthly benefit for families on welfare and individuals in the Disability Lifeline program.

Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

Here's a soldier's tale. Bill Surwillo deploys to Afghanistan. Nearly a quarter of his platoon is killed. He comes home with PTSD. He turns to marijuana and spice – a synthetic version of the drug – to relax. The Army kicks him out and takes away his GI Bill. Is this fair?

Miriam Duerr / Washington Dept. of Ecology

It's 14 years off in the future. But a compromise deal will shut down the Northwest's largest coal-fired power plant near Centralia. Legislation is headed to the governor's desk following a vote Thursday in the Washington senate.

An April 13th bill signing ceremony in Olympia presented a strange scene. Governor Chris Gregoire was surrounded by a motley crew of leather-clad bikers. They were there to watch her sign into law a ban on police officers profiling motorcycle riders. It was a lighthearted affair.

But some police officers aren't laughing. In fact, they're furious. One of the bikers in the room that day killed a Portland cop 30 years ago. But  the story gets even more complicated. It would take a cop's eyes to pick him out of the crowd.  It was Robert "Pigpen" Christopher, a longtime member of the Outsiders Motorcycle Club with chapters in Portland and Tacoma.

The Washington legislature is headed for an overtime session. The Senate late Monday approved its plan to close a 5-billion dollar budget shortfall. But it is unlikely differences between the House and Senate can be reconciled by this Sunday’s Easter deadline.

Austin Jenkins / N3

Teachers and other public school employees in Washington could face a 3% pay cut. That’s one of the key cost-saving measures contained in the State Senate’s two-year budget proposal. It was unveiled late Tuesday.

The State Senate has approved a controversial proposal to base teacher lay-offs on performance - not seniority. The vote late Tuesday triggered a heated debate on the Senate floor and split majority Democrats. Senator Rodney Tom is a suburban Seattle Democrat. He led the charge for performance-based lay-offs:

“Why in the world would you ever lay-off a second year or third year or fourth year teacher of the year in lieu of maybe an eight or ninth year teacher who is on probation? It just makes no sense.”

Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

This week we're taking a look at what police say is a resurgence of gang activity - especially in rural areas. In part one of our series “Living In Gangland," we go on patrol with a Washington Fish and Wildlife cop. 

Gang violence is mostly a big city problem. But in parts of the rural Northwest, police are grappling with gang rivalries, graffiti and even drive-by shootings.

Just ask Darin Smith, chief of police in Royal City, Washington, population 2,000.

A week of protests over state budget cuts culminated with a large union-led rally Friday at the Capitol in Olympia.

The State Patrol estimated the crowd at 7,000 people. There were signs and chants, and a sea of unionized workers on the steps to the Capitol and Supreme Court. 

Washington House Democrats are considering a plan to lease the state's liquor distribution system for $300 million cash up front. But it wouldn't come cheap.

Initially, the deal could cost the state 80 percent of what it currently collects from the wholesale distribution of booze. That's according to a memo marked "highly confidential." It comes from a newly formed company called Washington Beverage and outlines a proposal to take over from the state the distribution of hard liquor throughout Washington.

Washington House Democrats have unveiled a plan to close a $5 billion shortfall over the next two years. The plan released Monday would close a $5 billion shortfall and yet still manage to save several programs the governor proposed to eliminate.

It would privatize the state’s liquor distribution center and impose a $10 state park fee. It would also allow for the early release of some prison inmates. House Budget Chair Ross Hunter (D-Medina) calls it a responsible and sustainable budget.

Ted S. Warren / AP

A German news publication says it’s obtained a copy of a secret Army investigation into leadership problems within the 5th Stryker Brigade. One soldier from this Joint Base Lewis-McChord based unit has pleaded guilty. Four others are charged with war crimes including the murder of innocent Afghan civilians. 

Rolling Stone magazine has published several more grisly photographs related to the war crimes case unfolding at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The release comes just one week after a German magazine was the first to publish photos. The Army had sought to keep the pictures under wraps for fear they could trigger a backlash against U.S. troops.

Last week’s photographs showed soldiers posing with a dead Afghan named Gul Mudin. Rolling Stone now reports he was an unarmed 15-year old boy, the first of three victims allegedly killed by members of a rogue platoon from Western Washington.

A follow up now to a story we brought you last fall on people who are sent to jail for failing to pay their debts, like a medical bill. A proposal moving through the legislature would toughen standards for debt collection agencies. It wouldn’t ban the practice of jailing people who owe money.

Last September, we introduced you to Janelle Leslie of Newport near Spokane. She described the night she called the police for help and ended up getting arrested for a warrant she didn’t know about.

A member of the state House has suddenly resigned his seat. Democrat Jim Jacks of Hazel Dell in Southwest Washington departed the legislature Friday without any public announcement.

The Chief Clerk of the House says there were no formal complaints pending against Jacks. 

Austin Jenkins / N3

A Washington-based soldier has been sentenced to 24-years in prison for killing unarmed civilians in Afghanistan. Specialist Jeremy Morlock pleaded guilty to three counts of premeditated murder and other crimes.

Washington's budget shortfall has grown to more than $5 billion. That's after Thursday's state revenue forecast. Advocates on the left immediately intensified their calls for lawmakers to end corporate tax exemptions. The Governor warned the legislature to avoid budget gimmicks.

Washington’s budget shortfall has now grown to $5.1 billion over the next two years. That’s the estimate from the Governor’s office after Thursday’s state revenue forecast. 

The state's chief economist, Arun Raha, predicts the state will collect nearly $800 million dollars less than previously forecast for a variety of reasons.

“First we had the volatility in oil prices, because of the political unrest in the Middle East. Now we have the tragedy in Japan the world’s third largest economy and one of the state’s leading trade partners," says Raha.

The debate over legalizing marijuana in Washington is producing some unusual alliances. At a legislative hearing Wednesday, lawmakers heard from the wife of Canada's so-called "Prince of Pot." And from the former federal prosecutor who indicted him.

Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

Lawmakers expect to get more bad news tomorrow when the new state revenue forecast comes out. If the budget shortfall grows, pressure will intensify to find new sources of tax dollars to offset some of the cuts. Maybe gambling.

That's what owners of the state's non-tribal casinos are betting on. They're ready with a proposal to allow video slot machines in off-reservation mini-casinos – something they say will benefit the state’s coffers.

We have learned of an embezzlement involving taxpayer dollars in case with an unlikely victim: Washington's Superior Court Judges.

No charges have been filed, but a federal investigation is underway into years of alleged theft at the Superior Court Judges' Association of Washington.

We’re learning more about the Washington prison inmate charged with killing a female correctional officer in January.  Prison disciplinary records were obtained for Byron Scherf. They show two major violations, but not for hurting others.

It's not quite Wisconsin, but Republicans – and a lone Democrat - in Washington are taking a jab at state employee unions. They've introduced legislation to not fund union contracts negotiated by the governor.

Washington could soon be the last state in the nation to issue driver’s licenses without an immigration check. A controversial proposal in Olympia to create a two-tier license system appears to have died. Senate Republicans failed to force a vote just before a key legislative cut-off.

Majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature are working to close a multi-billion dollar budget gap. But they're not likely to implement a change the State Auditor says could save $180 million over the two-year budget cycle, as the idea runs afoul of the powerful teacher's union.

Governor Chris Gregoire is making another push to create a cabinet-level Department of Education. The idea appears to be faltering in the Washington legislature.

U.S. Army

Fifty soldiers from Joint Base Lewis McChord have killed themselves since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some committed suicide on-base, others off and still others while deployed overseas.  Leaders at JBLM say they’ve dramatically stepped up efforts to combat suicide. But they admit it’s not easy to change Army culture.

A proposal to base teacher layoffs on performance - and not seniority - has died in the Washington legislature. The bill's demise is a victory for the state’s teacher's union, but a frustrating defeat for some lawmakers. 

Currently, when school districts reduce staff newer more junior teachers typically lose their jobs first. A bipartisan proposal in the Washington legislature would have changed that.

U.S. Army

It was a surreal scene last August 27th in downtown Salt Lake City. A soldier - AWOL from his base in Western Washington - emerged from an underground parking lot. He was dressed head-to-toe in combat gear and carrying a rifle.

Seconds later the soldier was dead. Now, an internal Army investigation has found shortcomings in how the case was handled. The family of Specialist Brandon Barrett blames the Army for not intervening sooner.