OLYMPIA – The Legislature is in the throes of its budget fortnight, when much energy is expended and many pronouncements are made on something everyone knows will change.
It is a time of high drama, but even higher dudgeon.
In this two-week period, lawmakers first find out how many billions in taxes the state will collect over the next two years, which is another way of saying how much they will be able to spend. The majority party in one chamber – this year it’s the Senate but they take turns every other year – releases its spending plan. This is roundly denounced by the minority party in that chamber, which this year is also the majority party in the other chamber, which will release its budget in the second week.
The Republican-led Senate majority cared not one bit for this denunciation, as is standard. Just a few hours after releasing its budget Tuesday – a 232-page tome filled with dollar signs and numerals containing many commas and zeros – it held a public hearing in the Ways and Means Committee. Any member of the public wishing to comment on the budget as a whole would have to have been a speed reader, but these hearings are divided into very brief segments at which various lobbyists get a chance to genuflect to a budget giving them the money they believe they need for the next two years or try extracting a bit more if it doesn’t.
The next day the committee held an executive session, at which the budget’s mistakes have a chance to be corrected and members of the committee have a chance to add something that was left out before voting to send it to the full Senate. Not “whether” to send it to the Senate. When one has a majority, one does not bring up a bill in the powerful budget committee that one can’t pass, even with a complete revolt by the minority, which is generally expected.
This year’s executive session convened at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday and took an immediate break that was announced as a half-hour to 45 minutes. That was apparently in dog minutes because they didn’t come back until after dinner and sparred over amendments until after midnight.
The next day Republicans scheduled the budget and a small flotilla of bills attached to it for a vote in the full Senate.
The main debate over the budget didn’t start until about 9:30 p.m., thanks to protracted fights over the ancillary bills that included a significant rewriting of the state’s property tax laws paired with a complete overhaul of the way the state figures out how much money each public school should get. This rather momentous bit of legislating was dropped into what’s known as a title only bill, which means it was essentially a blank piece of paper until a few days ago. But to be fair, this was essentially an update of an earlier bill that Senate Republicans had hustled through the chamber in early February as if it were, well, a budget.
The night was full of speeches that started with “I’d like to thank the good gentleman from such-and-such a district” or “I respect views of the good lady across the aisle on such-and-such an issue” which is always a prelude to saying that person is a poser or a doofus, or both. It is a general rule of legislative debate that the more solicitous the speaker seems, the more critical he and she actually is.
The debate over the prospect of giving property tax breaks to a big chunk of the state while sticking it to Seattle kept lawmakers in their seats, except of course when they needed to duck out and check the Gonzaga-West Virginia basketball game on a television in a nearby office. Fortunately for Republicans, the Zags won in time for some members to hustle back to head off an adverse vote.
The budget didn’t get its final vote until the Senate disposed of 22 amendments, and by then Thursday had bled into Friday. The Senate might want to consider adopting “After Midnight” as its 2017 theme song, considering the lyrics talk about causing talk and suspicion and giving an exhibition.
After the budget was done, Republicans had one more little thing they wanted to take up: A capital gains tax on state residents who have significant profits from investments. This is something Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed as a way to pay for education improvements, but Republicans generally hate it and hardly any lawmaker is ready to fall on a sword for. The bill hasn’t even had a hearing, although it was pushed through the budget committee in February as sort of a tactical nuke to hold for just the right time.
Senate Republicans figured that time was about 12:15 a.m. Friday. Most Democrats walked off the floor. Republicans refused to allow them to be “excused” and called for a vote anyway, saying Democrats had spent much of the night proposing expensive stuff to add to the budget, so it was time to put up or shut up on a way to pay for it. To bring up a tax bill on short notice, however, two-thirds of the Senate must agree. When that vote was taken, all 25 members of the Republican-led majority voted yes, but they needed 30. The night groaned to a close, but not before recording what may go down as one of the strangest votes in Senate annals, in which no-new-taxes Republicans voted for a capital gains tax, but the citizenry was saved by seven Democrats who voted no and another 17 who had already gone home.
The good news is that the Senate budget gets a rest for a while. The bad news is the second week of budget fortnight begins Monday, with the release of the House budget.