June 2, 2013 in City

Spin Control: Budget impasse doesn’t spell doom

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

So it’s not surprising that into the vacuum that is the Legislature’s special session – where the most special thing about it to date may be that so little has been done – those with nothing to do are pouring predictions of disasters lurking beyond the horizon.

Even Gov. Jay Inslee, normally the most upbeat of guys, said Friday he was “becoming increasingly concerned about the pace of budget negotiations.” The press corps was mildly surprised to discover negotiations could be described as having a pace.

Some people closely watching the various happenings and non-happenings in Olympia may believe we are close to a zombie apocalypse, followed by Armageddon, followed by a nuclear winter, followed by intense global warming and possibly a plague of frogs and locusts.

Before you run out and stock up on bottled water, canned food and ammunition, let me violate the Journalists’ Credo for Filling Slow News Days and say it’s a bit early to panic. Or to even get too worried. Here’s water to throw on the various fires being fanned by the worriers.

The Senate faces chaos because it is split 24-24 between a budget-chopping coalition of conservatives and free-spending Democrats, and Democrats could enlist Lt. Gov. Brad Owen to break ties to pass outrageous tax increases.

With the death of Lakewood Republican Mike Carrell last week, the Senate is evenly split. But Pierce County officials could name a replacement as early as this week, and he or she will be a Republican. Democrats have made no move to retake the majority or push through bills. Until Carrell’s replacement shows up, the current ruling coalition has an easy way of locking up to keep any bill its conservative members oppose from passing: One of them just leaves the floor and doesn’t vote; the rest vote no.

Owen only votes if there’s a 24-24 tie. If the count is 24-23, he doesn’t vote. And passing a bill requires 25 votes, not just a majority of those present.

The Legislature is guilty of a misdemeanor by not having a budget in place by yesterday.

Technically true under the Budget and Accounting Act. But don’t look for state troopers to be writing each legislator a summons. They’ve gone beyond that June 1 deadline before, and an attorney general’s opinion from the 1970s said that part of the statute really isn’t enforceable. What law-flouting liberal was in charge back then? Republican Slade Gorton.

If there’s no budget by July 1, when the new fiscal year starts, there’s no constitutional authority for the state to spend money on any of its programs. All state workers will be furloughed and all institutions – including prisons and hospitals – will be closed.

The first sentence is technically true, because the state constitution says the state can’t spend money without an appropriation, and appropriations are in budgets. But the constitution also says the state’s paramount duty is to educate its children, and it must pay its debts, and it can go into temporary debt to maintain its institutions, departments and bureaus.

The transportation budget already passed, so current work on roads and bridges won’t miss a beat. So the question is, what about things covered by the operating budget, which has most of the non-transportation spending? The state won’t be out of money, because the taxes will still be due and collectable. Given that choice, state officials could opt to follow the parts of the constitution that allow them to keep things going, rather than to stick with the part that says “shut ’er down.” They could get sued, but what court is going to say, “Yes, you should have unlocked the prisons, tossed patients out of the state hospitals and cut off aid to hungry children rather than figuring out a work-around.”

Researchers in the state treasurer’s office, the Office of Financial Management and various legislative committees were busy studying these things last week. None of them was comfortable with being quoted on the record, but no one was moving toward Def Con 1, either.

Going into July without an operating budget would be unprecedented in modern state history. The 1991 Legislature came close when Gov. Booth Gardner signed the budget a few minutes before midnight on June 30.

This is not to suggest the Legislature should continue its languid pace and do nothing for the next 28 days, just to see what happens. Rather, it’s to suggest that if the next 30 days are like the last 30, we won’t automatically paste “Closed until further notice” on the Welcome to Washington sign on I-90 just this side of the Idaho border.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.


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