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News >  WA Government

As lawmakers crawl toward budget deal, state makes plans for partial shutdown

This March 29, 2016photo shows the Washington Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Rachel La Corte / AP)
This March 29, 2016photo shows the Washington Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Rachel La Corte / AP)

There are few conversations that the denizens of the Capitol Campus have these days with the outside world that don’t include an inquiry along the lines of “Are they done yet?”

The “they” being the Legislature, and the questioned degree of doneness being the budget.

This is somewhat akin to children in the back seat of the SUV on a long vacation journey asking “Are we there yet?” As I regularly told my children, if we were there, the car wouldn’t be moving and you wouldn’t still be in the back seat. This may explain why my children grew up to be what their grandfather would have called “wiseacres.”

If the Legislature were done, you wouldn’t have to ask because every news source would be reporting it. So the next question is “How close are they to an agreement?”

Here’s the best update I have:

A source for the Senate Republicans floated the rumor Friday that budget leaders are nearing the point where both sides have realized that each will win on some points and lose on others. This is a good thing, because the basis of a bargain is winning here and losing there.

Budget leaders have “exchanged paper,” the source said, Olympia talk for a written proposal that isn’t a full 400-plus page budget but has the key outlines of the money coming in and going out on major parts of a two-year spending plan.

The Senate Republicans submitted the last “paper,” so it’s now up to House Democrats to counter and they are dragging their feet, this Republican source said.

A House Democratic source confirmed that some “paper” has gone back and forth, but that’s a time-consuming process and not really a substitute for leaders of both parties, from both chambers, sitting down at a table and negotiating a budget. Negotiations are not happening, this Democratic source said, because Senate Republicans still demand the House Democrats vote on their tax packages, which they are disinclined to do without a budget.

In other words, the last 50 days of special sessions seem to have moved us millimeters closer to a budget deal. The odds of needing a third special session when this second special session expires on June 22 seem only slightly less than the sun rising in the east tomorrow.

Should that third special session stretch into July, it’s more than a matter of carping about dilatory politics. Without an operating budget, the state doesn’t have the legal authority to spend money for certain things. Little things like many programs and salaries.

Under state law, when the end of the fiscal year is in sight and a budget deal is not, state agencies must develop contingency plans for a partial shutdown. They began in May, with preparations that included a warning to state unions that some of their members face temporary layoffs without an approved budget.

The actual notices of pending temporary layoffs would go to some 26,000 workers in about two weeks if legislators are still “exchanging paper.” If they reach a deal on June 30, as they did in 2013 and 2015, the state would send out a “never mind” notice.

If there is no deal by June 30, the impact on the first day might be limited because July 1 is a Saturday, so many state offices are closed anyway.

But if you were planning to spend that weekend at a state park – even if you have a reservation – you’ll be out of luck because they will be among the first state assets to close. State wildlife areas and boating access sites would also close, as would many state-operated fishing areas, and the Fish and Wildlife Department wouldn’t be issuing fishing or hunting licenses or Discover Passes.

Sometime after that, maybe after the fireworks have all been shot off for Independence Day, the shutdown might get more noticeable.

The Department of Health will have some emergency responders on call for life-and-death public disasters, disease outbreaks or a nuclear or radiological emergency. The Public Health Laboratory, which tests for everything from bioterrorism materials to rabies and screens newborns for potentially life-threatening but treatable conditions, would stay open. The department estimates it would keep as many as 102 people on the job because of federal mandates or public safety requirements. Out of a staff of about 1,700.

State prisons will operate on a limited basis, with enough staff to keep things running smoothly behind the walls. But they won’t accept any new inmates from the counties.

The Department of Social and Health Services will fully staff Eastern and Western State hospitals, and many child and family protective services. But they, too, would cut back many staffing on many programs and services to what officials describe as “skeletal.”

And so it goes. As this is the third set of contingency plans in the last five years for a potential budget shutdown, many agencies were able to submit them with no or just limited updates. This form of recycling probably will not boost Washington’s reputation as a green state.

All the plans are being posted on the Office of Financial Management’s website.

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