Yesterday, without fanfare, Governor Jay Inslee’s office announced that the majority caucuses of the House of Representatives and the Senate had reached agreement (“in principle”, at least) on a go-home budget deal that would avert a state government shutdown following the end of the day on Friday, June 30th, the last day of the current 2015–2017 fiscal biennium.
The details are still being hammered out, and so it’s still not yet known what is actually in the agreement. Supposedly, all will be revealed tomorrow, late in the day (it was originally going to be noon), just hours before the biennium ends and the two chambers vote on the deal their majority caucuses negotiated and agreed to.
There won’t be time for public hearings on the budget or for the input of local governments, businesses, unions, advocacy groups, and public interest organizations to be heard and considered prior to its adoption.
This is no way to run a state. We share the frustration of journalists, editorial boards, fellow activists, and even some lawmakers themselves that the Legislature’s lack of fiscal transparency and proclivity to procrastination (which has gotten much worse since 2012) is unacceptable and detrimental to the state’s well-being.
The people of Washington — or at least those interested in monitoring the work of their representatives — will have less than a day and a half to examine the budget that all seven million plus of us will have to live with starting this Saturday. That is not a large enough window to permit any substantive or thoughtful analysis.
Toby Nixon, the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the short time line makes it “just impossible to do any kind of meaningful review.”
That could lead to mistakes that someone outside the formal process might ordinarily catch and prevents the public from getting a reasonable amount of time to weigh in through phone calls, emails and advocacy, Nixon said.
Nixon once served in the state House and is currently a member of the Kirkland City Council.
Such review might not change large swaths of the budget, but scrutiny could easily highlight errors or push small changes, he said.
“Basically the leadership or the budget negotiators are just asking people to trust that they got it right,” Nixon said.
Local governments (cities, counties, school districts) are in the same boat:
Dan Steele, lobbyist for the Washington Association of School Administrators, said it’s concerning that the state’s 295 school districts won’t have much time to review how lawmakers’ school-funding overhaul would affect them.
Steele said school district officials don’t think they’ll get an advance look at the policy changes that are designed to correct a school-funding crisis that has been 40 years in the making.
“If there’s something wrong with it, there’s no time for them to go back and change it,” he said.
“Even if there’s something screwy, I think the skids are greased and they’re going to roll it out and pass it quickly and be done.”
The Legislature has had ample time to craft and argue over a budget to keep the state’s vital public services funded and open, but most of that time has been foolishly squandered due to the intransigence of the Senate Republicans, who deliberately refused to negotiate until the threat of a government shutdown was very near, having calculated that running out the clock would serve their interests.
Such gamesmanship has become intolerable.
It is very possible that Democrats will soon run the Washington State Senate; the party needs to flip just one-Republican held seat in this year’s special elections and it’ll have a real majority again for the first time in five years. But even if that happens, reforms need to be instituted to prevent this kind of situation from occurring again.
State Senator Reuven Carlyle seems to understand the need for reforms and the frustration that so many of us are feeling. He wrote yesterday:
We appear to be moving toward a state budget and the largest reform of education finance in our state’s 128 year history. Regardless of how it unfolds, I’m grateful for the enormous dedication of budget writers working 7x24 for a responsible agreement. And yet outside of politics, on a deeper, more structural and institutional level, we should all be unsettled that we have come within days of formal floor votes and yet have no public bill, no public data, no public analysis and no visibility into the historic implications on taxpayers and our 295 school districts serving 1.1 million students. We are better than this as a state.
Yes, we are. It is painfully apparent that we need to fundamentally change the way our Legislature develops budgets. For inspiration, we should consider the practices of other states. For instance, here’s how it works in New Hampshire, as related by former Washington State Representative Brendan Williams:
Recently I had occasion to witness the biennial budget process, reconciling differences between the House and Senate, for the 165th session of the New Hampshire General Court.
In the indifferent air-conditioning of the 128-year-old Legislative Office Building in Concord, as temperature outside soared into the 90s, the Budget Committee of Conference, beginning on a Monday, met publicly late into the night on successive days, wrapping up its work by Wednesday afternoon.
Both minority Democrats and majority Republicans were represented on the committee and had the opportunity to be heard, and offer amendments, as the committee went through the budget line-by-line. It is an open process that never changes, regardless of which parties are in control. Legislators, paid only $200 for each two-year term with no “per diem” allowance, have no incentive to drag it out.
The New Hampshire model may not be right for us. But the process we have is obviously not serving us well. It is indefensible.
Institutions of all sizes and kinds occasionally need the equivalent of a tune-up in order to work properly. Our Legislature needs a process tune-up so that it can produce better budgets for the millions of people that it was elected to serve.
It is worth remembering that the House and Senate are already in the practice of adopting rules for the consideration of most bills, particularly policy bills, which impose deadlines known as cutoffs for the advancement of legislation.
Cutoffs aren’t absolute, but they provide structure to the legislative session and mitigate the human tendency to procrastinate.
While our existing system of cutoffs works well in many respects, it has not been a recipe for transparent, organized budgeting. We need to figure out what that recipe is, and institute reforms to ensure that we as a people and our non-legislative institutions (cities, school districts, businesses, nonprofits, unions, etc.) can effectively scrutinize the work of our elected representatives.
The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.
Emphasis is mine. This is the construction clause of our Public Records Act, which the Legislature is ironically exempt from (at least in part). Nevertheless, the sentiment expressed here is the sentiment that needs to guide the reforms made to ensure future budgets are crafted transparently and with public input.