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

Spin Control: Doing the budget the way it’s always done doesn’t make it the best way

Jim Camden

The biggest guessing game last week in and around the Capitol Campus has been Will They or Won’t They?

As in will or won’t legislators finish off a $52 billion-plus budget – plus any taxes and policies they need to keep the state books out of the red – by midnight Sunday?

That’s the standard game when the Legislature is within a week of the scheduled end of a 105-day session. For the past five sessions that involved writing the biennial budget, they didn’t. As you are reading this today, Day 105, the answer may be clear. But as this column is being written on Friday evening, one can only say they might finish on time. But that could include some more late night votes on legislation that spends money through a budget negotiated behind closed doors and tax bills that had little or no advance notice.

One group facing a goring of oxen through the process this year is the banking industry, which objected Friday afternoon to the increase of business and occupation tax on large banks, part of it to pay for better schools.

“This is a complicated bill,” Trent House, a lobbyist for the Washington Banking Association, told the House Finance Committee, which had scheduled a hearing on the bank tax bill on short notice, and released information on the bill on even shorter notice. “We found out about it 3 1/2 hours ago. We haven’t seen a fiscal note. We don’t know what this bill does or who it applies to.”

Clay Hill, of the Association of Washington Businesses, said the committee was violating legislative rules that call for at least five days notice before a bill gets a hearing. Although that rule can be waived in the final week of the session, he wondered what urgent circumstances lead House Democrats to bring up the bill then, rather than sometime in the previous 102 days of the session.

As if he didn’t know that the urgent circumstances was coming up with revenue for the operating budget, which at that point only a handful of legislators had seen.

Chairwoman Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, defended the short notice by saying the bill would get another hearing in a Senate committee in the next two days, if it passes the House. (It did, late that night.)

“This happens every year at this time, in some manner or another,” Tarleton said. “It is not perfect.”

Besides, bankers and other businesses had seen a previous version of a bill to raise their B&O tax, so this was just a new version, she contended. But when one is talking about a tax on gross receipts, the details are very important, even if a new version is made to only change a digit a place or two behind the decimal point.

Legislators are apt to defend their budget process as “this is the way it’s always done.” If that was a good reason, one might think we would still be hanging horse thieves, placing miscreants in the stocks and throwing debtors into prison for not paying bills, or doing any number of imperfect things we’ve stopped doing.

In truth, the “always done” defense is only applied by people who do it that way because it suits them.

It suits legislative leaders to hold on to the budget until the very end of the session to have some leverage over hard-to-handle lawmakers. It suits budget writers from each chamber to sequester themselves somewhere away from the madding crowd of colleagues and lobbyists to avoid being pestered for everyone’s favorite six-, seven-, or eight-figure project. And then there’s always that familiar refrain that negotiators can’t speak freely if discussions are in the open, because they might be criticized for suggesting something that doesn’t sit well with the folks back home, even if it does break a logjam that leads to the deal.

This process keeps the people and businesses who will pay for all the programs and salaries out of the loop for most of the key decision points. Budget writers argue the public gets a chance to see the early versions of the budget during the early months of the session and the final version – some 400-plus pages of details with lots of subsections, zeros and semicolons – when the deal is released before the vote. No need to view all that sausage-making in the middle.

But if they think we can’t stomach all the things involved in bringing the sausage to the table, maybe they could at least give us more time to peruse the menu and digest what they’re feeding us before they give us the bill.