Like most Washingtonians on day eight of the special session, I’m still trying to get caught up on what happened last week when the Legislature adjourned without finishing the supplemental budget.
One of the more curious complaints I heard about the new Senate budget proposal is that the details were made publicly available instead of first exchanged in secret behind closed doors as usually happens in Olympia. Consider some of the concerns expressed about the public release of the Senate budget offer:
House Democrats re-tweeted this from Keith Eldridge of KOMO 4 News on March 11: “House democrats unhappy with state senate republicans plan to unveil new budget w/o negotiations.”
If anything, more transparency was needed rather than a Friday public hearing being called less than a day before on title only bill vehicles being used for a new budget and tax offer.
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Last year, however, we heard this about making public budget offers:
Jerry Cornfield of the Everett Herald tweeted on May 14, 2015: “House Democrat leaders - If Senate GOP will make its initial budget offer public, we’ll make our counteroffer public. What do you say GOP?”
Just like with government union contract negotiations, we often hear lawmakers say they can’t negotiate the most important document they do (the budget) in public. It’s not like this is National Sunshine Week or anything.
If we can’t be in the room with lawmakers, let’s look at other ways to improve the transparency of the budget negotiations. Lawmakers may say you can’t negotiate the budget in public (despite the requirement for local governments to do so), but there is no reason the proposals of each side can’t be publicly posted before the secret budget meetings, so that everyone can see what is being proposed and what is being assumed in a budget deal. The Senate took a good step toward this last week (other transparency concerns aside).
Not only would the public have a better idea on what is occurring with the state’s most important legislation, but lawmakers would also know what legislative leadership recommended, so there would be no surprises, as apparently happened last year for some Senate Democrats who originally voted against suspending I-1351.
As for the initial budget negotiating process, lawmakers should prohibit a vote on the operating budget until all the policies necessary to balance the budget have been passed first. By doing this, the House and Senate would know exactly what is assumed in the other’s budget proposals, and that they actually have the votes necessary to implement the budget they are proposing. For the 2016 supplemental, the House never voted on its $120 million in tax increases and the Senate never voted on its proposed pension merger. How can either negotiate for a spending plan without first knowing if it actually has the votes to fund it?
If we can’t get lawmakers to play by the same open government rules as everyone else we should at least expect them to publicly exchange their budget offers so we know what is being proposed. They shouldn’t have to pass the budget first for us to know what’s in it.
Jason Mercier is the Director of the Washington Policy Center’s Center for Government Reform. His office is located in the Tri-Cities.