The big unknowns: Inslee's cabinet unsure of key shutdown questions

State going into unchartered territory. Officials to report back on Monday, two weeks before Legislature's funding ends.
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Gov. Jay Inslee

State going into unchartered territory. Officials to report back on Monday, two weeks before Legislature's funding ends.

The shape of any partial state government shutdown on July 1 is one giant question mark.

Actually, it's dozens and dozens of question marks.

Gov. Jay Inslee met with his cabinet late Wednesday afternoon to discuss what to do if the Washington Senate and House cannot agree on a 2013-2015 operating budget by July 1. Talks have been deadlocked since late April. No official budget by July 1 — the beginning of fiscal 2013-2015 — means no official appropriations will be going to numerous state agencies. And that means a lot of government operations will have to shut down.

At this time, no one knows which ones or how many.

Wednesday's meeting consisted of Inslee giving marching orders to his cabinet members to study what must be kept open after July 1 if a budget compromise is not reached. Cabinet members are supposed to report back no later than close-of-business Monday on what must be kept open and what must be shut down. After Monday, the cabinet is supposed to start tackling the nitty-gritty details.

"We began a difficult, but very necessary process to prepare for July 1," said Mary Alice Heuschel, Inslee's chief of staff. "We remain hopeful that will not become necessary."

Inslee spokesman David Postman said, "Everybody in the state is going to feel it" if a partial shutdown occurs.

Complicating any shut down process is that the state courts and agencies headed by elected officials — such as the attorney general's office and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction — are in charge of their own reviews and contingency plans. They operate independent of the departments under the governor. However, the partial shutdowns will be coordinated.

A major first step is to find out what operations have to remain open for public safety, and to meet the state's constitutional obligations and the federal government's legal requirements. Since those obligations still have to be researched, state officials declined to speculate on whether more or less than 50 percent of state government's functions face potential closures.

Services paid with the recently passed state transportation budget, and programs not paid for with legislatively appropriated funds could remain intact despite a shutdown. Meanwhile, the House recently passed a capital budget to ensure that construction projects could continue after July 1. That budget has not reached the Senate floor yet. 

One question is how the Washington Supreme Court's ruling that the state must improve K-12 education will shield schools from the effects of any shutdown.

In a memo to state department heads and elected officials, David Schumacher, director of the state's Office of Financial Management, offered this on the education question: "Expenditures for K-12 education may also be included in this narrow band of legally required activities. Given the state Supreme Court's continuing jurisdiction in McCleary v. State, the failure to appropriate any funds for basic education may call the question of what remedies the Court may entertain to enforce the constitutional obligation."

Another question is what happens to state contracts that face payments after July 1 if no operating budget is passed. Schumacher's memo speculated that missing payments would likely put the state in a breach-of-contract situation. "We should acknowledge that agencies, and ultimately the taxpayer, may pay a price in the form of interest payments and/or damages," Schumacher wrote.

Inslee's staff has not yet researched whether it is legal or feasible to essentially pay employees and contracts on credit after July 1, and then follow up with cash when a budget gets approved. Yet another wrinkle: the state has many contracts with its roughly 50,000 employees. Some contracts include giving advance warnings prior to any July 1 layoffs or furloughs.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

  

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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