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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Cost of a special session? It depends

OLYMPIA – Before a special session was called Sunday for the Legislature to finish such important tasks as setting the state’s two-year operating budget, legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee seemed to agree on one thing: it would cost taxpayers $11,000 a day.

If history is any guide, that estimate could be high. Last year’s special session didn’t cost that much, even though pay and per diem schedules suggested it might.

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And that's not actually an extra cost to taxpayers, administrators for the Senate and House of Representatives said Monday. The cost of a special session is always absorbed in their existing budgets; they don't get extra money, although they may have to forego something else.

“It's really hard to predict the cost of a special session,” Bernard Dean, chief deputy clerk of the House, said.

The Legislature has needed a special session every year since 2010, and about half the years since 2000. Sometimes, they’ve needed more than the 30 days set by the Constitution for this legislative overtime period.

The cost of the 2011 special session was about $10,700 a day, close to the estimate being used by Inslee and Senate Republicans Sunday afternoon as the regular session ran out of time. Last year’s special session was a slightly cheaper $9,400 per day.

Senate numbers for 2010 weren’t readily available, but the House costs were about like last year for the 29 extra days the Legislature needed that year.

One of the biggest differences from year to year is the number of legislators who accept the $90 per diem they are allowed under state law for days when they are doing state business. If all 147 legislators claimed per diem, that alone would be more than $13,000 a day.

But a few legislators don’t take per diem even during the session because they live in or near Olympia, and others don’t take it for parts of a special session when the House and Senate are “pro forma”, which means they aren’t conducting any business. Others don’t take it at all during the special session, either as a political statement or because of public reaction to the fact they didn’t get the work done on time.

Both houses operate with smaller staffs – less security, fewer parking guards and temporary legislative aides – than the regular session, which also reduces costs, Brad Hendrickson, deputy secretary of the Senate, said.

But whatever the cost, it will have to come out of the current budget, Hendrickson and Dean said. They don’t get a special appropriation to cover the special session.

“We pay it out of the existing account,” Dean said. “We can’t spend money for something else. For example, we might not hire to fill an opening that arises.”

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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