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Labor groups converged on the state Capitol for a third day of demonstrations Thursday to call attention to budget cuts they called "immoral," as lawmakers continued their efforts to close a looming $5 billion budget deficit.
Dozens of people were already on the scene early Thursday morning, after spending the night on the hard marble floor of the main legislative building. Several Democratic lawmakers brought bagels and orange juice for the protesters as they rolled up their sleeping bags and donned shirts with letters spelling out the phrase, "Cut Tax Loopholes."
The Washington State Labor Council, which helped organize the rallies, said Thursday's protests would focus on proposed cuts to state-funded health services.
Hundreds of mental health care workers walked off the job to join the demonstrations, said Linnae Riesen, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union 1199 NW, the union that covers them. About 500 mental health and home care workers had already gathered in downtown Olympia by 11:30 a.m., Riesen said.
House lawmakers are expected to vote this week on a budget plan that would slash state spending by $4.4 billion for the 2011-2013 budget cycle. The Senate will follow next week with its own budget proposal.
On Wednesday, several hundred demonstrators gathered inside the Capitol for a boisterous rally that could at times be heard from inside the House and Senate chambers while legislators voted on bills. The crowd urged lawmakers to discontinue tax breaks for certain groups and industries -- such as financial services, insurance, film production and out-of-state shoppers -- before resorting to painful cuts.
Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire has been lukewarm about the proposal to end tax breaks, and bills to halt some of them have failed to advance. State law requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to create or increase taxes.
After asking protesters to leave Wednesday evening, the Washington State Patrol told them they would not be arrested if they refused. About 50 people opted to sleep inside the central rotunda.
Lt. Mark Arras said the decision to let the demonstrators stay came from Gregoire's office, the State Patrol and the Department of General Administration. He said the protesters have been well-behaved and called the unusual sleepover "uneventful."
"We'll work on trying to make sure we have a win-win with protesters so their voices are heard," he said Thursday when asked about the possibility of a second overnight stay. "Basically, we're just kind of reacting to whatever comes our way."
The week of demonstrations will culminate in a rally Friday that is expected to draw several thousand people. In an announcement posted on its website, the Washington State Labor Council called Friday's event "the big one."
"Washington's working families are tired of being blamed and punished for the damage done by Wall Street banks and corporations," the group said, urging citizens to join its call to lawmakers to "put people first."
If Friday's crowd swells to the size organizers are predicting, the protest could be the largest at the Capitol in recent years. In 2003, tens of thousands of Washington teachers gathered to protest cuts to education funding.