Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Today marks the 23rd day that the Legislature has been in special session. I thought it would be good to bring you up to date at this time on the action/inaction of the Legislature.
Lawmakers return, but to what?
The scheduled 60-day session came to an end on Thursday, March 8. However, the Legislature failed to agree on a budget that would close a $1.1 billion shortfall. So Gov. Chris Gregoire called a special session beginning the following Monday, March 12. Only those involved with the budget stayed at the Capitol. Everyone else went home, but were told they could be called back to Olympia at any time. For the past three weeks, the chambers of the House and Senate have remained empty and quiet, except for the morning pro-forma ritual of opening session, reading in messages, and then adjourning until the following day – about a three-minute process.
Last Friday, the chief clerk of the House sent out a message to lawmakers saying the House would convene tomorrow, April 4, for session/caucus. Unfortunately, we have been told there was little progress over the weekend toward reaching a budget agreement. However, only one week remains of the special session, which is limited to 30 days. The governor has indicated she has come up with a budget plan she believes could end the special session. To be finished by next Tuesday, lawmakers most likely would need to vote late this week or very early next week. Details on what we could be voting on have yet to be revealed.
How did we get to a special session and budget impasse?
It became evident during the beginning of the regular session in January that the budget was not the priority of Democrats in the House and Senate. Instead, they spent 36 days of the 60-day session working toward passage of same-sex marriage legislation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it's estimated Washington's population is 6,830,038. Of that, there are an estimated 16,485 same-sex couples in Washington state, according to the bureau's American Community Survey. That's .002 percent of the state's entire population. Nevertheless, legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington became the majority party's top priority.
It wasn't until Feb. 21 – or day 44 of the 60-day session – that House Democrats finally released a budget proposal. Senate Democrats waited one more week until Feb. 28 to deliver their budget plan, leaving only nine days to negotiate an agreement.
Both plans included variations of a gimmick known as “apportionment.” Under apportionment, a payment of millions of dollars to K-12 schools would be delayed and pushed into the next budget cycle, which begins July 1, 2013. Democrats say it's no big deal – it's just a delay of one day. But that delay is significant when you consider it creates an immediate deficit in the next budget cycle.
Here's what The News Tribune editorial staff in Tacoma said about the proposal:
“The Democrats who defend that approach say it's a simple matter of delaying the checks by a day. Sounds innocuous. But that one-day delay amounts to a legal check-kiting scheme. Its only purpose is to let the Legislature evade its obligation to write a budget that balances revenues with expenditures within a given biennium. Washington's Democratic treasurer, Jim McIntire, has called the deferred payment proposal a 'felony gimmick' that would draw the attention of the Wall Street firms that rate the risk of government bonds. Credit downgrades can be very expensive, and Moody's and Fitch already have Washington on their watch lists. This is not a good time for lawmakers to adopt the fiscal practices of a banana republic.” (Read the full editorial here.)
Three Democrats in the Senate said they're tired of approving unsustainable budgets that kick the can down the road, forcing the Legislature to return to fix the mess with patchwork budgeting. So they joined with Senate Republicans to pass a budget that does not include apportionment. The bipartisan Senate budget has also faced its own share of criticism by Democrats because it would have skipped a $143 million payment in the liability portion of two state pension plans. (Read more on this issue here.)
Since Senate Democrats lost their majority vote to the bipartisan Senate budget, it left some bruised egos which did not heal in the final six days of the session. So the Legislature adjourned March 8 without a budget agreement.
Apportionment and the proposed skipped pension payment are among the issues that have brought the parties to a near impasse as the clock ticks into the final week of the special session.
Governor refuses to sign bills, changes her mind
This is the fifth special session in two years under Democrat control of the Legislature. It's very disappointing that egos and politics have gotten in the way of common-sense solutions to the budget. The frustration level has become so high that Gov. Gregoire initially decided she would only sign a select few bills of the more than 200 sent to her until the Legislature could produce a budget agreement. During a news conference on March 15, she said, “I'm sending a message today. I didn't sign 25 bills that were scheduled to be
signed today because I'm tired of simply going ahead and doing the work. I want them to get it done. I want a budget. And I want a budget as soon as possible. And to help them hear the message, I have denied the members their bills.”
While some may say that's a bold move, House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt sent a letter to the governor that noted she was punishing all members and citizens who have an interest in legislation pending her signature – not just those involved in budget talks. He wrote: “Your frustration was misdirected at members and constituents who care about these bills and are not involved in budget negotiations. It was also upsetting that House members paid the price for circumstances playing out among Senators. The decision to cancel bill signings seemed an inappropriate response.”
Under Washington state law, the governor has 20 days from the end of a session to take action on legislation sent to her, or the bills automatically become law without her signature. As that date approached, which was last Saturday, March 31, the governor relented. She held marathon bill-signing sessions last Thursday and Friday.
House Republicans provided solutions, no gimmicks
There is no good reason or excuse about why the Legislature is back in another special session – especially given the fact that common-sense, solid solutions have been available that could have closed this budget gap without general tax increases.
During the special session that began after Thanksgiving, my House Republican colleagues and I began writing a supplemental operating budget that was based on an innovative “Priorities of Government” budgeting approach used by Gov. Gary Locke nearly 10 years ago. Locke outlined the concept in his November 2002 budget proposal: “We are looking at what matters most to Washington citizens. We are focusing on results that people want and need, prioritizing those results, and funding those results with the money we have.”
House Republicans identified three core priorities of government in the budget: education, public safety and protection of the state's most vulnerable citizens.
Constitutionally, education is the state's paramount duty. As your state representative, I have taken an oath to uphold this constitution, and that includes funding education first!
The state Supreme Court recently ruled the state must “amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the state's first and highest priority before any other state programs or operations.” We took that directive very seriously and proposed to fund education first in a separate budget as our state's highest priority.
The House Republican supplemental operating budget also would have paid schools on time and would not have shifted payments to the next biennium as other plans proposed. Additionally, we showed that a sustainable budget could be passed without general tax increases.
I wrote in detail about the proposed House Republican budget in an opinion editorial that appeared in some of our local newspapers at the end of February. You can read more about it here: “How to write a responsible state operating budget.”
House Republicans were the first to present a balanced supplement operating budget proposal after carefully studying and prioritizing every taxpayer dollar being spent. Unfortunately, the Democratic majority would not accept our plan. In short, I believe this would have been the best budget option of all presented because it funded the priority services of government, provided for a healthy reserve (savings account), and contained no gimmicks.
Set egos aside and do what's best for Washington
I think most people are tired of egos getting in the way of common-sense solutions for Washington. Budget negotiators need to consider working together to reach a compromise on the issues that separate them. I don't think there's a citizen in the state of Washington who wants this special session to go on for one day longer than is needed. Lawmakers at the budget table need to realize government wasn't meant to do everything for everyone. We need to get back to the basics of limited government and set priorities in the budget. It's time to put away the egos and pass a responsible, sustainable, balanced and gimmick-free budget that forces state government to live within its means, just like you and I must do with our own budgets.
I welcome your ideas!
How would you build a budget? What would be your priorities of government? Do you favor shifting payment of bills into the next budget cycle, essentially starting that cycle in the red? Or should the state pay its bills on time, just like everyone else is expected to do?
Send me your ideas. I'd love to hear from you! My e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a member of the House Transportation Committee, I frequently receive construction updates from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). I would like to forward this helpful information to you so that you can better plan as you're out driving in our local area over the next couple of weeks. Please drive carefully!
Five-day lane closure on U.S. 2 in Sultan postponed until April 8
Beginning next Sunday, April 8, WSDOT will close one lane of U.S. 2 for five days to finish building a new roundabout at Rice Road. The closure starts Sunday at 7 p.m. and will end by 6 a.m., Friday, April 13, when the roundabout will be opened to traffic. Backups could exceed two miles, so drivers are being asked to plan ahead and take alternative routes, if possible. You can check the WSDOT's U.S. 2 Sultan Basin Road camera, which is about a mile west of the construction zone, to monitor the eastbound backups. Regular updates will also be posted on the WSDOT's What's Happening Now page. The work is highly weather-dependent and might have to be rescheduled if the forecast shows heavy rain.
Snohomish County construction work roundup
This week, work has begun on the U.S. 2 Anderson Creek project with daily lane closures. Bridge inspections along U.S. 2 east of Sultan are also underway with mid-day lane closures. The Snohomish County construction update page is the best place to look for local highway work.
SR 529 Ebey Slough bridge taking shape – check out the photos
WSDOT also has posted new photos on the State Route 529 Ebey Slough bridge replacement project. Crews are a few weeks away from finishing up work and opening the bridge to traffic. Check out the photos at: www.flickr.com/photos/wsdot/sets/72157624805913276/with/7021567785/
That's all for now! Thank you for allowing me to serve and represent you!
In your service,