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.

Ways to Connect

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.

This story has been updated to correct the dollar amount the state believes to have been poached.

Last summer, we brought you a story about gaps in the system that's supposed to keep Washington shellfish safe to eat. Now state lawmakers appear ready to get tougher with shellfish operators who violate food safety laws.

U.S. Census Bureau

Washington's Latino population grew 71% in the last decade. That's according to newly released 2010 Census Data. The dramatic rise has implications for how Washington redraws its Congressional districts.

AP

Washington's total debt load is twice the national median – and one of the highest in the nation. That's the warning from the State Treasurer. Now lawmakers are considering two proposals to cap how much Washington can borrow for capital construction projects.

A two-tier driver's license system is getting traction in the legislature. This is how it would work: applicants who provide a valid social security number would get a regular license. Drivers who can't prove they are in this country legally would get an alternative version.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

Voters defeated not one, but two liquor privatization measures last fall -- one of them sponsored by Costco. But a key lawmaker says that's not stopping the Issaquah warehouse chain from continuing to push the issue in Olympia.

Austin Jenkins / N3

Washington's legislature has hit the one-month mark. Budget writers say a deal is close at hand between the House and Senate to re-balance the current two-year spending plan. After that, attention will shift to the closing a multi-billion dollar shortfall in the next two-year budget.

Immigrant rights groups are pushing back against efforts to deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in Washington. They rallied at the Capitol Wednesday in opposition to several legislative proposals. 

In the Capitol Rotunda, the chant was:

Safety first, driver's licenses for all.

Members of the group OneAmerica voiced opposition to the half-dozen proposals in the Washington legislature to require proof – or at least evidence of – lawful presence in the United States in order to get a driver's license.

justmaketheshift.com

Valentine's Day is just around the corner. So we thought it was a good time to update a story from nearly a year ago. Last March, Idaho Governor Butch Otter penned a "love letter" to Washington and Oregon businesses. He was trying to romance companies into moving to his state.

Austin Jenkins / N3

Washington's pension system is underfunded to the tune of nearly $7 billion. Now the State Treasurer and a bipartisan group of lawmakers say the time has come to force the legislature to pay the pension bill.

Undocumented immigrants would lose state medical coverage under a proposal to save the popular Basic Health insurance program. The get-tough measure is part of a budget-cutting plan unveiled by the State Senate. But it's at odds with a competing approach in the House.

In a single day, Washington cut more than 5,000 families from the state's welfare-to-work program. That's because a strict, five-year limit on benefits kicked in. It's a cost-cutting measure ordered by the Governor.

Democrats in the Washington House of Representatives have a "One Washington" mantra. But a couple of Western Washington lawmakers are testing that East-West unity. Their issue? The flow of state tax dollars that go over the mountains.

Governor Chris Gregoire has ordered flags to fly at half-staff in memory of a slain prison correctional officer. Gregoire has also initiated an outside review of the murder of Officer Jayme Biendl over the weekend.

Wash. DOC

His “worst nightmare.” That's how Washington’s Secretary of Corrections is describing the murder this weekend of a female correctional officer. Prison officials say 34-year-old Jayme Biendl was strangled to death.

US Army

There's been a significant development in the case of five Washington-based soldiers accused of killing unarmed Afghan civilians last year. The Washington Post reports a plea deal has been struck with one of the key defendants. But an Army spokesman cautions nothing's been finalized. 

The Post, citing an anonymous source, says Specialist Jeremy Morlock has agreed to a deal that would spare him the possibility of life in prison.

A man who says he was upset over losing state benefits has been arrested and charged with making threats against Governor Chris Gregoire and her family. 51-year-old Robert Ray Locke was arraigned on one count of felony threat and pleaded not guilty.

Governor Chris Gregoire says she supports citizenship checks for driver's licenses. Washington is one of the last states in the nation that still issues driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Gregoire says ending that practice is a matter of national security:

"The job of being governor has changed dramatically since I came into office in 2005 and security has become one of the top priorities for every governor in this country."

There are several proposals in the legislature to require the Department of Licensing to confirm an applicant's "legal presence" in the country. Gregoire says if the legislature sends her a bill, she’ll sign it.

The governor's statement comes after a public radio report earlier this week on the issue. 

Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

Lawmakers face stark choices when it comes to the budget. Those choices were on display Monday as the House voted on a cost-cutting bill. Democrats and Republicans split over what to cut next: education or social services.

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