Restoring the legislature’s role during pandemic

Restoring the legislature’s role during pandemic
Recent statements by Washington’s Office of Financial Management and state lawmakers leave little possibility for a special session prior to the November election. Photo: Bluedisk at English Wikipedia

Despite a $4.5 billion shortfall for the current state operating budget, a $9 billion revenue gap through the next biennium and a current cash flow deficit, recent statements by Washington’s Office of Financial Management and state lawmakers leave little possibility for a special session prior to the November election. Nevertheless, many key ranking legislators continue to advocate for one in order to address the state’s financial problems before the January regular session, when they must also adopt a 2021-23 operating budget.

Others see the current situation of emergency proclamation setting rules as part of an ongoing effort to shift legislative authority regarding public policy to state agencies such as the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

Although a state law requires that the governor issue across-the-board agency cuts or convene a special session during a cash flow deficit, OFM argued in a memo that the law isn’t triggered because revenue projections don’t include “all future revenue from the federal government,” among other things. OFM has directed state agencies to look at spending reduction opportunities of up to 15 percent.

However, Washington Policy Center (WPC) Government Reform Director Jason Mercier said at an Aug. 19 virtual summit that by delaying a special session “the people’s legislative body…has been frozen out of responding not only to the decisions being made for all Washingtonians but its constitutional role on appropriations and the budget.”

Senate Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member John Braun (R-20) said at the summit that had the legislature been allowed to address the fiscal problems in June, lawmakers could have reduced spending planned for the 2020 supplemental operating budget and plugged the remaining budget holes with money from the rainy day fund.

“We would have given ourselves a runway,” he said. “(Instead) we are sitting on our hands. The consequences will be devasting both for our economy if they choose new taxes or for our social services if we reduce spending.”

He added that while Inslee has complained about Washingtonians not complying with his mask mandate, “he doesn’t see the need to follow the law. It’s somewhat surprising to me he doesn’t see the hypocrisy here.”

Frustration over the situation is shared by Democrats such as Rep. Mike Chapman (D-24). “If we had started in June, we would have had a much better ability to control spending. I think we could have had a bipartisan agreement…so that the cuts won’t be as draconian. Leadership is about doing what’s right, not what you can do.”

While some have suggested a special session may occur after the November election, Chapman said he’s “absolutely convinced” the legislature won’t meet until January, when state agencies will likely face 28-30 percent budget cuts.

“And I’m doubtful the governor will actually have us meet in January,” he added. “The legislature has now been told we’re nonessential workers.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox (R-2) said that “for people that take the job seriously…that is a heavy blow to not really have this important branch of government allowed to have any voice at all.”

At the same time, House Transportation Ranking Member Andrew Barkis (R-2) noted that WSDOT has used the COVID-19 pandemic to close state highways to promote social distancing, which raise constitutional issues regarding state gas tax money.

“What we’ve been seeing as a result of the COVID is this shift away from the legislature’s responsibility and role to implement the policies. Using this crisis to start putting that into play set a really dangerous precedent. It’s all concerning, and again this is cutting the legislature out of the process.”

WPC Transportation Director Mariya Frost said that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic there had been efforts to shift decision-making power away from the legislative body and into state agencies. A bill introduced during this year’s session would have given WSDOT the final say on whether a transportation project could get funding from the legislature, based on a variety of criteria – though congestion relief and mobility would not be among them.

“Prioritizing mobility and the resiliency and functionality of our state highways will be uniquely urgent during the post COVID-19 recovery, as more people choose to drive,” she said, adding that if the legislation were to pass “a lot of these critical projects may not get built.”

Barkis said: “We are the liaison between the people of our districts and the state of Washington. When you cut that out, we can’t get the constituents’ information to the policy. We see that cut and dry with transportation when it comes to projects and needs and maintenance.”

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