After last year’s triple overtime legislative session, political observers anticipated lawmakers would do everything in their power to avoid going into an extended session this time around.
But those hopes were dashed when legislators failed to agree on a supplemental budget before the March 10 deadline for the “short” 60-day session. Party leaders are continuing to negotiate while the majority of lawmakers returned home last weekend to connect with constituents. When they will reconvene and vote is uncertain.
It never should have come to this.
Major policy and budget issues are supposed to be hammered out every other year. The second year of a budget cycle, which is this year, historically has been intended for budget tweaks and necessary policy issues.
House Democrats, however, have decided to change the purpose of the short session by trying to significantly alter the budget that took nearly seven months to negotiate last year.
In order to accomplish their goals, House Democrats plan to raid state reserves and ignore the budget’s four-year outlook requirement that lawmakers approved in 2012.
The Senate and House Republicans are rightly appalled at this blatant attempt to disregard fiscal safeguards that were put in place to protect the future of state government operations.
The state stabilization account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, is set aside for emergencies and severe downturns in the economy. Reps. Larry Haler, R-Richland, Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, and Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, told the Herald that they are concerned about any attempt to drain it, saying the state needs a budget that is fiscally responsible and prepares it in case a recession hits — like it did in 2008.
In response to that brutal economic year, which saw drastic cuts to many state programs, lawmakers adopted a four-year outlook requirement for the budget. This means lawmakers must not only budget for a two-year cycle, but they also must look ahead and balance the cost of continuing state programs over the next four years.
This approach makes complete sense and provides stability for government services. It also gets the state off the roller coaster, highs and lows of budgeting.
But House Democrats say there are needs now that must be funded and appear willing to ignore the four-year outlook budget requirement. Those needs include fixing staffing shortages at Western State Hospital, raising teacher salaries and helping the homeless.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, lead budget writer for the House, said in an interview on the Washington State’s Public Affairs Network that the numbers being used to limit spending can’t be trusted.
He defended breaking the four-year outlook requirement saying this is the first year it has truly been in effect, and that budgeting out to 2019 is about as accurate “as a coin flip.”
But it is the uncertainty of the state’s economic future that warrants a cautious approach to budgeting.
House Democrats may not like the four-year outlook restriction, but they still must abide by it, even if it means delaying certain expenditures until next year. It is the law, after all.
This session was supposed to be about fine-tuning the budget, not making major changes to it. House Democrats need to start playing by the rules and the process likely would move a lot faster.