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Sunday, October 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: How legislators might get their job done – on time

OLYMPIA – It is a rare day when an irate news consumer doesn’t write, call, text, email or otherwise communicate displeasure with the Legislature’s inability to finish its work and get the heck out of Dodge.

Many offer suggestions on how to keep future Legislatures from going into multiple special sessions to do the work that they are tasked with doing in the 105 days of a regular session.

The most common is “Don’t pay them,” but that shows a general misunderstanding of how legislators collect their salaries. They get paychecks year-round, in session and out, so they don’t get extra pay for a special session any more than Mariners’ paychecks get a boost when a game goes into extra innings.

They do get an extension of their daily expense allowance, known as a per diem. Legislators often make a show of refusing their per diems, but in fact they aren’t required to file for them, so it’s a passive, not an active, refusal.

To hit them in the pocketbook, it would be necessary to deduct a day’s pay for each day spent in special session. This could have some impact, particularly for the majority of legislators who do not spend most of a special session in Olympia. They’re back at home with family, working at whatever other job they have, waiting for a summons from their leadership to return for votes on deals that have been struck. A relative handful have been in Olympia for much of the first and second special sessions; if the remainder back home were getting their paychecks docked, they might pressure their leaders to reach a deal.

But that assumes legislators are motivated chiefly by money, and the majority are not. Those who want to make more money usually find more lucrative employment as lobbyists or consultants. Money alone won’t get them to finish on time.

The real solution must be structural for this part-time Legislature. (Some suggested this year that Washington needs a full-time Legislature; yeah, like it needs a year-round sinus infection.)

An odd-year session like this one, in which the state’s two-year budget is written, by law is set at 105 days. But those days run consecutively from the time the first gavel bangs in January until late April. Legislators almost never do official work like committee hearings or floor debate on Saturday or Sunday. Yet those days count against the total, so those 105 days, practically speaking, automatically are reduced by 28 percent.

Rather than extend the number of days in a session, it might make more sense to cut them to 90 but only count weekdays, and build in a two-week break after day 45. Most legislators could go home, hold town hall meetings, talk to constituents and reconnect with families while budget leaders and their staffs draft budgets that would be available to the public by the time the full Legislature returns. Make each chamber vote its budget out of committee by the end of the second week, off the floor by the end of the third, then begin negotiations to resolve the differences while the rest of the Legislature tries to pass non-budget items.

That would lead up to a session ending in late May.

But we did not have a budget by late May this year, you might argue. And there’s no guarantee a schedule change would fix that. So to avoid the specter of a government shutdown at that point, the state would need another provision that says if there’s no budget by May 31, all current programs continue into the next year, but no new programs, policies or pet projects get a dime. Legislators could then go back and explain that to their constituents and see how fast they settle on a budget in January of the following year, which for all of the House and half the Senate would be an election year.

U.S. Not-So Open

The Legislative Ethics Board spent a fair amount of time determining whether legislators could receive free passes to the upcoming U.S. Open, and eventually decided some could because they were going to be doing “official business.” They’d be getting briefings on the benefits of such an event and what’s required to put one on because local officials are hoping this is the first of many such economy-boosting extravaganzas. After the briefing, they’d be free to hobnob with other dignitaries, watch some golf and snack. And maybe in some future session they’ll find some money to help out the next big tourney.

While this sounds a bit like a time-share condominium hustle where vacationers are offered a free dinner cruise in exchange for sitting through a high-pressure sales pitch, the board gave the official okey-dokey and the invites are going out to a dozen or so legislators.

Last week the local officials informed the media that unfortunately reporters couldn’t be present for the presentations because they’re being delivered in an area that is “off limits” to the media. Reporters can always talk to legislators afterward and “ask them how it went,” said Hunter George, a spokesman for the organizers. The ever-helpful organizers might offer up some photos or video.

And reporters likely will keep a list of legislators who take the free passes and see how they vote the next time Pierce County officials show up with their hands out.

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

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