Before Gov. Chris Gregoire calls the Washington Legislature back to Olympia for another special session, she should reflect on what happened in the first one.
Unable to fix the state’s $2.8 billion revenue shortfall during their 60-day regular session earlier this year, state lawmakers received a gubernatorial summons to extend their work. She thought they’d need a week, at the most. Thirty days later, an exasperated Gregoire found herself issuing an ultimatum.
There would be no second special session. If lawmakers couldn’t come up with a workable package of tax increases and spending cuts by adjournment time, she’d let them go home and she would impose across-the-board cuts.
At the last minute, split along party lines, lawmakers came up with a combination of controversial strategies – strategies that will echo throughout the 2010 election campaign that’s about to hit its stride.
One element of that solution was a calculated wager that Congress would renew Medicaid match funds that were worth $480 million to Washington state. Congress is balking, however, causing the delicately balanced state budget to teeter, and the governor says a second special session might be necessary after all.
We’re not so sure.
For the most part, the $480 million that’s in limbo was used as a budget reserve. If state agencies are prudent and there are no fiscal surprises, all the missing money would have bought was peace of mind. And the next Legislature will convene in just six months.
Granted, a disappointing revenue forecast next week could make a healthier reserve fund a concrete need rather than a theoretical security blanket. But in that case, the governor has another option, as she has acknowledged more than once. She has authority to make across-the-board spending reductions.
That’s not an ideal way to recalibrate stressed budgets, but there’s little reason to expect the Legislature would provide a better option. If partisanship was a hindrance in April, it will be an impenetrable blockage leading up to a primary or general election.
Congress may yet approve the Medicaid match funding, making the special session a moot question. But the federal government has deficit problems too and shouldn’t be faulted if it exercises uncharacteristic restraint.
In Washington state, as in Washington, D.C., there are no painless solutions. The difficulties in Olympia can be addressed without launching a legislative cage fight. A special session should be the last resort.