Unrealistic expectations: Legislature's budget won't get done in time

News analysis: The state could allow itself room for smarter budgeting.
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News analysis: The state could allow itself room for smarter budgeting.

The Washington Legislature's budget process is set up inefficiently. The most important part of the Legislature's duties is crammed into a tiny amount of time — resulting in a haphazardly choreographed public process with all the key action behind the scenes.

It took the Legislature 80 days to announce its first full-fledged preliminary budget — out of a 105-day session.

We're now on Day No. 82. Twenty-three days to go, including three Saturdays and three Sundays.

Next week, the Democratic-controlled House will unveil its proposed 2013-2015 budget, which will be radically different — financially and philosophically — from the Republican-oriented Senate budget released last Wednesday.

Bottom line; The two chambers have just about three weeks to fight over complicated accounting moves, budget cuts, possible tax increases, which Peter to rob to pay which Paul, and behind-the-scenes bragging rights over who are the most bad-ass groups of legislators and lobbyists.

Now many in Olympia see doing everything in 105 days as a mark of excellence, despite that fact that almost every session extends beyond 105 days. A mantra is constantly recited that going beyond 105 days is bad for no real reason other than the number 105 is exceeded. (Peter Callaghan of The News Tribune of Tacoma wrote a 2011 column about the excessive emphasis on meeting the deadline.)

Now let’s forget about whether meeting a 105-day deadline is the mark of legislative purity.

Let’s concentrate on the fact that budget issues don't get serious until the last month of a session, despite the budget dictating everything that the state can and must do.

A legislative session starts with policy bills first, because the budget bills don't surface until the end. A handful of legislators and staff members have worked on the budgets since before the sessions begin.

But those efforts can't be finished until the quarterly revenue forecast comes out in March so everyone knows what numbers to plug into the equations. This year, the quarterly forecast was announced on March 20, the 66th day of the session.

Then the majority party in either the Senate or the House -- the order alternates from session to session -- unveils its budget proposals a few days later. Then public hearings begin.

This year, it took two weeks after the revenue forecast for Republican-oriented Senate to announce its budget proposals — a few days slower than usual. The two weeks come from the Majority Coalition having several difficult promises to keep: no new taxes, no tax exemption closures, more money to education and colleges, keeping services for the elderly and cooperation — however strained — with the minority Senate Democrats.

While this story’s example looks at this week's Majority Coalition budget, the same pitfalls will likely show up next week when the House Democrats present their budget proposal.

The Majority Coalition unveiled its budget proposal at noon Wednesday. Three-and-a-half hours later, the Senate Ways and Means Committee began a day and a half of hearings on that proposal, receiving testimony from more than 100 agencies and groups.

Now consider that the budget summary is 237 pages and the actual budget bill is 401 pages of stilted language, acronyms and numbers. The documents discuss esoteric accounting shifts among the nooks and crannies of the state government. While the documents have thousands of dollar figures, charts to compare 2011-13 and 2013-2105 are few and far between. And we're talking more than $33 billion worth of revenue from hundreds of sources -- and another $33 billion-plus in expenses going in thousands of directions. And don't forget all the different laws and regulations involved.

The public hearings are somewhat organized by subject. But the testimony is still a scattershot hodgepodge. On Wednesday, OneAmerica's testimony on immigrant worries was immediately followed by the Association of Washington Business giving a thumbs-up for no new taxes.

It is debatable whether all that mismatched testimony is effective. The people appearing before the committee don't have adequate time to absorb the budget proposal. The legislators are only slightly ahead of them in digesting the same material. Will all this noticeably affect a massive bill that was not unveiled until there was a good chance at least 25 senators already would vote for a predominantly Republican (or at least 50 representatives in the House for a predominantly Democratic) position?

And keep in mind that the Democratic House and Republican-oriented Senate budgets will clash, resulting in long behind-the-scenes negotiations, which will include huge stockpiles of stalled policy bills that each side is holding hostage.

There's no way that the Legislature will adjourn by April 28, the deadline for a 105-day session. And most never expected it to.

One solution to this annual end-of-the-session logjam would be to move up the quarterly revenue forecast by one month, doing it in late February instead of late March.

That would add 30 days to the time that the Legislature is dealing with real dollar figures to discuss the budget. It could give legislators and the public a few extra days to absorb the budget proposal before they testify and debate on the specifics.

Heck, it might even make talk about a 105-day session realistic.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8