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Spin Control: Maybe Washington should change the rules for writing its budget

OLYMPIA – With 14-month-old Elias Shiovitz on his lap, Gov. Jay Inslee signs legislation creating a new state Department of Children, Youth and Families that will merge parts of the Department of Social and Health Services and some juvenile justice functions into with the current Department of Early Learning over the next two years. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – With 14-month-old Elias Shiovitz on his lap, Gov. Jay Inslee signs legislation creating a new state Department of Children, Youth and Families that will merge parts of the Department of Social and Health Services and some juvenile justice functions into with the current Department of Early Learning over the next two years. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

As lawmakers managed the slide to a partial government shutdown last weekend, their leaders tried to alibi what has become standard brinkmanship of writing a two-year budget.

It was a result of major changes in public education. It was a function of divided government. It was a reflection of a growing state with increasingly complicated state programs.

All of which are mostly true, and mainly irrelevant.

The fact is the Legislature works most diligently when a deadline acts as a revolver to its collective head. To get work done, the rules used to take the safety off that gun several times a session, requiring them to move a bill through the process by a particular date or the bill would be dead. But the loophole is that any bill that was needed to make the budget work is essentially exempt from deadlines.

Because the budget is about the last thing the Legislature decides, the old deadlines, or “cutoffs,” don’t have much meaning. No bill ever really dies until the Legislature goes home for good.

The revolver now has only one round in it: The start of a new fiscal year on July 1, which requires a new budget to avoid a partial government shutdown. For the last three years’ biennial budget cycles, the Legislature has been willing to spin the chamber and pull the trigger every day in the last half of June.

The other problem is the 105-day session isn’t really 105 workdays, and the 30-day special sessions aren’t 30 workdays. Days run consecutively, but the Legislature almost never works weekends during the regular session; work doesn’t start many Mondays before noon and the parking lots empty shortly after lunch on many Fridays.

During recent special sessions, one could go days without catching sight of a legislator, with most back home and a few huddled in secret negotiations.

Having all these days generates an air of never do today what you can put off ’til tomorrow. Lawmakers wait for the next revenue forecast before introducing a budget. They let bills with broad support languish until they can be used as leverage for a vote on something else. And the rule that a bill must wait 24 hours from the time it arrives in the chamber until it comes for a vote is routinely waived.

With the government shutdown looming on June 30, the 610-page operating budget, the raison d’etre of the previous 173 days of regular and special session, wasn’t even available until 8 a.m. that morning, and passed both chambers less than 12 hours later. Considering that a certificate from Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics is not required for legislative service, it was a safe bet the vast majority voting on the $43.7 billion budget had only the vaguest idea of what was in it.

As usual, some legislators talked of the need for change. Democratic Sens. Guy Palumbo, Patty Kuderer and Andy Billig introduced a constitutional amendment requiring a bill wait three days in its final form before legislators could vote on it. That could help avoid the shutdown guessing game in late June, but at a price. Lawmakers might still cobble together a budget delivered at midnight June 27, but no changes, not even corrections of obvious mistakes, could be made.

Plus, state law already requires them to have a budget by June 1. They missed that mark in 2013, 2015 and this year. No one was perp-walked out of the domed Legislative Building into waiting State Patrol cars.

A better idea would be to rethink the calendar. Cut the session to 80 days that aren’t consecutive. Start in early January, go 20 weekdays to introduce bills and hold hearings, then call a two-week break so legislators can go home and explain to constituents all the brilliant ideas they’ve supported and dumb ones they’ve opposed. Require them to have town hall meetings on three of those days.

Come back in late February after the state releases its latest revenue forecast and spend another 20 weekdays for each chamber to write and introduce a budget, then hold real hearings, not these 8-hour marathon sessions in which everyone gets 1 minute to say thank you or ask for more money. Go back home for a week and two more town hall days to explain what spending you want to cut or what taxes you want to raise. Count the five town halls as workdays.

Come back for 35 weekdays to get everything done.

After each chamber passes its budget, negotiations must start. They can meet in secret, because they can’t seem to do it any other way. But at the end of each week, they must post the latest offers to prove those “we’re getting closer” claims.

That essentially ends the regular session in early May. If they finish early, they get a $100-per-day bonus for each day under 80. If they need a special session for a budget or anything else, there’s no per diem and their pay goes down $100 for each day they need.

Daily updates from negotiations on the budget or whatever required a special session would have to be posted. That way, if they produce a budget on June 30 like a cat coughing up a hairball, people will have a pretty good idea of what’s in it and what changed.

If they don’t get a budget by June 30, the old budget automatically kicks in for 30 days – no one gets to claim credit for new programs and new tax breaks or to brag about eliminating wasteful spending or unfair tax loopholes. And their pay gets docked $200 a day. Each month the old budget gets renewed, and the amount of pay docking goes up.

The eventual budget might not be better. But there would be fewer surprises, more informed votes and no threat of a shutdown.



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