Legislature likely to leave some pink slips before holidays

Halfway through their special session, lawmakers aren't following Gov. Chris Gregoire's suggestions for budget action. But some action can be expected before Christmas.

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Washington State Capitol

Halfway through their special session, lawmakers aren't following Gov. Chris Gregoire's suggestions for budget action. But some action can be expected before Christmas.

This is do-or-bust week in the Washington legislature. At the halfway point of the 30-day special session, House and Senate Democratic leaders have a plan to take a bite out of the $1.4 billion budget shortfall ($2 billion if you count the cash reserve Gov. Chris Gregoire wants them to leave on hand) before they go home for the holidays.

How much of a bite? The range I’ve heard is wide: from $190 to $500 million. Some of that would be actual cuts, the rest fund transfers and other money shifts. All of it decidedly “not sexy” in the words of Senate budget chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle. Administrative cuts to agencies would likely result in some state employees getting pink slips in their Christmas stockings.

The controversial stuff — the future of the Basic Health Plan, cuts to Levy Equalization, how much more to cut higher ed and, don’t forget, raising taxes — will wait until the New Year and the regular session. Lawmakers are due back in Olympia in the second week of January for the start of a 60-day session.

Since she called the special session in September, Gregoire has said she wanted a fully rebalanced budget on her desk by the end of the year. My hunch is she never believed that was a realistic timeline, but felt the need to keep the rhetorical heat on. If she did think lawmakers could come to town and close a $2 billion hole in 30 days (and perhaps send voters a tax package to boot), it means after two terms as governor she’s still woefully out of tune to the rhythms and nature of the legislature. Even if, as she notes, she provided them with everything they needed to accomplish the task: a list of $4 billion in possible cuts, a full-fledged budget proposal and a whole host of revenue options.

Gregoire ignores — or at least fails to acknowledge publicly — that even a legislature controlled by her own party is not going to acquiesce to her timeline, much less her budget numbers. Even in a crisis. “We need to question (her) executive agencies,” says Sen. Murray.

This is basic three-branches-of-government stuff. Lawmakers relish the role of “check” on the executive and they pride themselves in their deliberative (I use that word loosely) nature. The governor can propose, but the legislature enacts. And they don’t enact the governor’s budget. They may hold hearings on her budget as a courtesy and use it as a jumping off point. But, ultimately, the legislature writes its own spending plan and that’s what goes to the governor for her signature. In other words, the executive may start out pitching but always ends up catching.

There are other delaying factors at play, too. The increasingly influential “Roadkill Caucus” — made up of middle-of-the-road Democrats — won’t lend its votes to a budget and taxes without a companion government “reform” package. There’s also the reality that budget negotiations are a high-stakes affair and it usually takes the clock running out to force people’s hands.

So what’s been going on in Olympia these past 15 days? Lots of closed-door meetings. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, says her caucus even polled members in real time using hand-held electronic devices to gauge their reaction to various budget cut proposals.

There have also been lots of public hearings. Senate budget chair Murray says they’d be “slammed for lack of transparency” if they didn’t give the public a chance to weigh in on the governor’s proposals. But that’s time consuming — even more so when Occupy protestors hijack the hearings, as happened early on.

There are also sub-groups working on particular parts of the budget — education, corrections, social services, etc. — and reporting back to their respective caucuses. Yes, it’s cumbersome.  

And no doubt, when it’s over, many will declare this special session a colossal waste of time and taxpayer dollars. In fact last week, House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, issued a statement that said in part: “If the Legislature was earning a grade for its performance on the special session, I would give it an ‘F.’ Every day the Legislature is in special session and fails to close the state’s budget shortfall, or adopt policies to get Washington citizens back to work, is a day in which taxpayer dollars are wasted.”

But that same day, the top Republican in the Senate was quoted in The Seattle Times:

"I think she (Gregoire) expected us to get in lock step with her and ... do everything she put on the table. That's just not a reality," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. "Nobody thinks we're doing anything because we're not passing anything out, but there really is a lot of activity," he said.

Senate Republicans might be feeling a bit more charitable since they’re actually involved in writing the budget, the result of a tenuous Democratic majority in the upper chamber.

If anything, this 30-day “running start” to the regular session may help lawmakers avoid going into overtime on the backside of the regular session. That’s something they all want to avoid because it’s an election year. Senator Murray says he’s personally aiming for a budget deal sometime in February — well before the scheduled March adjournment and just in time to put a tax measure on the ballot in April.


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