Washington legislators will be back in Olympia for a special session before year-end. Gov. Gregoire is expected to announce a date this morning.
Last week’s announcement that revenues are falling about $1.4 billion short of projections assures another surgery-without-anesthetic that revisits a $31 billion budget just months old, but already very sick. In fact, lawmakers should be looking for $2 billion in cuts to give the state more adequate reserves.
The prognosis is not good.
A follow-up forecast due Nov. 16 is expected to be more of the same; revenue collections have fallen short of forecasts for more than one year.
Gregoire can do little on her own to fix the problem. She has ordered state agencies to draft plans for 5 percent and 10 percent budget cuts. Even 10 percent cuts yield only $1.7 billion in savings – debt service, pensions and basic education are untouchable.
At the Department of Corrections, a 10 percent reduction would force officials to find $160 million in savings, possibly only by eliminating community supervision, or closing one or two prisons.
Factor in horrendous tuition increases already imposed by Washington’s public universities and the magnitude of the challenge facing lawmakers comes into still sharper focus.
The problem becomes more severe as time passes, but Gregoire will probably set the special session for late November – first, because the revenue situation will be that much clearer, and, second, because schools will have submitted firm enrollment numbers and state agencies will have compiled caseload figures.
She also wants to give legislators time to clear their calendars and make arrangements for a highly inconvenient, holiday season interlude in the Capitol. The whole painful operation might go faster if her office and legislative leadership has some time to scrub the numbers before the session convenes.
Two months is a long wait, and the holidays are a dismal time to conduct business of any sort, public or private.
There may be another way: Amend the statute that requires the governor to make across-the-board cuts, giving her more discretion to act – perhaps within proscribed limits – until lawmakers gather in January for their regular session. The parameters could identify what programs are sacrosanct or where deeper cuts might be made. The actions would be reported to a joint legislative committee.
Many other states, Idaho among them, provide for such executive authority.
Quick passage of a law giving Washington’s governors similar powers would allow Gregoire to start attacking expenses immediately. Legitimate concerns regarding the permanence of that authority could be addressed by including a sunset provision in the new law.
If lawmakers are willing, they could make the change permanent later.
A similar effort to grant the governor more discretion was rejected by the courts 30 years ago, but a statute with more explicit guidance or a set of priorities might pass muster.
Even if it cannot be accomplished this fall, the change would be worth revisiting during the regular session.