Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Most Legislatures have needed more time, but how much keeps getting longer

OLYMPIA -- A sundial and benches form a meeting place between the House and Senate offices at the south entrance to the domed Legislative Building. (Jim Camden/The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA -- A sundial and benches form a meeting place between the House and Senate offices at the south entrance to the domed Legislative Building. (Jim Camden/The Spokesman-Review)

As the Legislature slid into its third special session Wednesday, some critics complained about lawmakers not being able to do their job in the 105 days the Constitution gives them, suggesting they get their act together like their predecessors of the “good old days.”

The first criticism is valid; the second, not so much. A check of the record – which beats twiddling one’s thumbs in the press house, if only barely – shows that since 1951, legislators have only gone home on time five times in an odd-numbered year, which is when they write the biennial budget.

Before that time, they pretty much finished in 60 days – the original length of a legislative session since 1889 – and went home for two years, coming back rarely in case of an emergency.

One could argue that until the middle of the last century, Washington was mostly a place where people cut trees, grew wheat and apples and made a few planes … So how hard could its budget be? That started to change in the 1940s, but there was a war on, so one might assume everyone chipped in and did their part, including legislators.

Things started to change in 1951, when the Legislature needed an extra 10 days to finish work. By 1961, that was up to 22 days, and by 1965, to 54. In some circles, they’d call this mission creep. Lawmakers were still pretty well able to go home and stay there in the even-numbered years until 1969.

That year the Legislature needed an extra 60 days, then came back in 1970 for 32. An extra 60 in 1971, plus 44 in 1972. An extra 88 in 1975, plus 75 in 1976.

You can see where this is heading. Going into overtime got so predictable that lawmakers came up with a constitutional amendment in 1979 that called for sessions of 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even numbered years. Instead of being unlimited, special sessions could only be 30 days long.

Supporters sold it as a way to save money, prevent control by professional politicians and make the Legislature more efficient. Voters bought.

Lawmakers managed to get in and out in the allotted 60 days in 1980, and only tacked one day onto the regular session in 1981 … except the recession got so bad they had to come back for 24 more in the fall and needed an extra 37 the next year. And an extra 31 in 1983. 

They needed extra innings in almost every odd-numbered year through 2003, although the short sessions in even years ended pretty much on time. In the mid to late double-oughts, there was a string of years when the Legislature finished on time. Those are the halcyon days most people recall when talking about things running smoothly.

Then the recession hit and the 2010 session went an extra 30 days, as did the 2011 session. The 2012 session needed 31 and the 2013 needed 48, taking the Legislature so late into June that people started talking seriously about a government shutdown if budgets weren’t done before July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. They passed the operating budget June 28 and the capital budget June 29.

 In 2015, the session went an extra 71 days, needing three special sessions. They avoided a government shutdown by passing budgets the governor signed at 11:40 p.m. on June 30l But they needing 10 more days to approve all the legislation that actually made that budget work. The Legislature had 20 days of stoppage time last year.

That revision from almost 40 years ago isn’t working too well so it’s not surprising people are talking about a change. That would probably take another constitutional amendment.

If history is any guide, any change might help for a while, but eventually they’ll blow through whatever time limits any new amendment sets.

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.

Follow Jim online: