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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: No criminal charges allowed in case of late budget

The old saying that there’s never a cop around when you need one is particularly true right now in the Capitol, where the Legislature is violating the state budget law and no one is available to make an arrest.

We’re not talking about the law of good sense, which is certainly being violated as legislators lurch toward a new fiscal year without a budget to tell agencies how to spend state money. No, this is the actual budget law, which says the Legislature must pass a budget no later than 30 days before the end of the current fiscal year, and failure to do so is a misdemeanor.

The fact that the law has been on the books since 1959 and a citation has never been issued in previous years when this deadline wasn’t met should not be a barrier to current enforcement. Do we not believe in law and order? Do we not subscribe to the “broken window” theory of policing in which you don’t let little infractions slide for fear they will beget bigger and bigger crimes?

But any dreams of an extremely satisfying citizen’s arrest were dashed by a call to the attorney general’s office, where Assistant Attorney General Jeff Even said legislators can’t be charged with a crime for not passing a budget by June 1, even though that’s what the law seems to suggest.

The office issued a formal opinion on the law in 1979, which it produces whenever the Legislature gets bogged down on a budget. The law is directed at the Legislature as a whole to pass a budget by a set time, not the individual legislators. They couldn’t be charged with violating the law whether they voted for or against a budget at any point in time, or didn’t pass one by June 1.

So much for a chance to shout, “Book ’em, Dano.”

The last shall be last

Washington is inching its way toward the dubious honor of being the last state that needs to pass a budget by July 1 to get ’er done. It’s a fairly popular date for budgeting purposes, and 46 states have fiscal years that start then, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The conference has a handy map of where states are in the budget process, which a few weeks ago had several states in the same kind of budget limbo as Washington. But that’s changing pretty quickly.

Florida passed its budget about 10 days ago, Maine passed its budget Tuesday, Alaska on Thursday and California on Friday. All are expected to be signed in short order. So Florida’s got lots of rich tourists dropping wads at Disney World; Maine and Alaska budgets are small by comparison. But when California gets done before us, there’s something seriously wrong.

Iowa’s Legislature passed a budget two weeks ago, but the governor has until early July to sign it and isn’t making promises. Connecticut’s Legislature has passed a budget, too, but its governor is unhappy with parts of it and is talking about significant vetoes, so a special session is in the offing. But at least both states’ legislatures have managed to come up with a budget they could pass.

Fore

The number of legislators availing themselves of free passes to the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay was only about a dozen late last week, and none was from the Spokane area. Colleague Melissa Santos of the News Tribune of Tacoma was keeping a watchful eye on the list of those who said they were taking the offered passes and making charitable donations, and by Friday only West Side lawmakers had attended.

Over the weekend, a few more could take advantage of the tickets and sit through the closed-to-the public spiel from Pierce County on the advantages of more such mega-events over the weekend. As promised last week, we’ll provide a full list when the event is over.

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