Last week, Senate Democrats backtracked on a previous agreement and refused to vote for the suspension of the Washington Education Association’s (WEA) money grabbing Initiative 1351 unless the Senate first passed a completely unrelated (but WEA-backed) bill that would water down high school graduation standards. Senate Democrats’ refusal to abide by their word blew a $2 billion hole in the state budget, which assumes a $2 billion reduction of spending for I-1351.
As Shift pointed out, Senate Democrats not only broke a significant promise, but they are attempting to blackmail Republicans. They are, once again, holding the people’s business (producing a balanced budget) hostage to their special interests’ agenda (pleasing the WEA).
The fact that Senate Democrats carved a $2 billion hole in the state budget is a problem because, by law, a four-year balanced budget is a requirement in our state. As GOP state Senator Andy Hill warned, without the suspension of I-1351, the budget doesn’t balance. Senate Democrats have attempted to justify what their decision by claiming the budget deal was “only not to fund I-1351, not necessarily suspend it.” Of course, everyone else—state House lawmakers and Senate Republicans—claim otherwise.
Whatever excuse Senate Democrats choose to employ, there are two steps the state Legislature can take to avoid future disagreements and ensure a budget that violates the 4-yr balanced budget law is not adopted moving forward.
First, lawmakers must push for greater transparency in the budget negotiation process. As the Spokesman Review points out, lawmakers hold public budget hearings. But, they conduct the real budget negotiations in secret. If the negotiations were public, everyone would be aware of the strings attached to the deal. That awareness would help avoid any questions as to who is going back on their word and would, in all likelihood, lead to no sunrise debates on the budget.
As legislative rules stand currently, if a disagreement over the budget arises between the House and Senate then a “Conference Committee” can be called. According to the Washington Policy Center, the rule “means the deliberations are supposed to be in a public setting.” However, a conference committee was never called for the budget negotiations due to certain objections. The Washington Policy Center,
“While lawmakers may say you can’t negotiate the budget in public (despite the requirement for local governments to do so) there is no reason why a process similar to the reforms we’ve been proposing for state labor agreements can’t be used that would require the proposals of each side to be publicly posted before the secret budget meetings so that everyone can see what is been proposed and what is being assumed in a budget deal. This is the Costa Mesa Civic Openness in Negotiations (COIN) process.
“Not only would the public have a better idea on what was occurring with the state’s most important legislation but lawmakers would also know what leadership was recommending so there would be no surprises as apparently happened for some Senate Democrats on I-1351.”
Second, lawmakers must “consider a rule change that would prohibit the House or Senate from voting on their version of the operating budget until all the revenue and policy changes necessary to comply with the 4yr outlook have been voted on first.” The rule change would ensure that lawmakers in the Senate and House could not possibly mistake what is assumed in the other’s budget proposal. And, lawmakers would “actually had the votes necessary to implement the budget they were proposing.” The Washington Policy Center,
“This means the House and Senate would have already voted on their preferred approach to I-1351, eliminating any mystery. Had this type of rule been in effect this year the budget may also have been acted on sooner eliminating one of the contentious debates that centered around whether the House had the votes for the tax increases necessary for its prior budget proposals.”
It’s not too late for lawmakers to balance the state budget, though Senate Democrats have certainly added stress to the 3rd special session. Senate Democrats should be aware that, if they continue to obstruct the process of balancing the budget, Jay Inslee might be forced to implement across-the-board cuts as would be required by law.
Certainly, greater transparency in the budget negotiation process and a simple rule change would help avoid similar disasters (as brought on by Senate Democrats) in the future. These reforms are the appropriate response to Senate Democrats’ budget betrayal.