Not that long ago, it was broadly accepted that the Legislature would be called back for a special session related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the multibillion-dollar hole that was developing in the state budget.
Not anymore. For several weeks, Gov. Jay Inslee has taken the position that the state has enough money to keep going until the Legislature’s regularly scheduled session begins in January and that no decision on a special session will be made until Congress decides whether to offer coronavirus-related financial assistance to state and local governments.
This is a bad decision. In the midst of a financial crisis of this magnitude — an estimated budget shortfall of $8.8 billion through 2023 — legislators need to be called in to do their jobs.
Inslee has invoked some spending trims and has tentative plans for more. With those cuts, it might be true that the state can scrape by over the next several months until the Legislature convenes — but at what cost? Lawmakers and officials across the state correctly point out that the longer the state waits for more comprehensive emergency budget action, the more drastic the cuts will have to be. Or, as state Sen. Curtis King of Yakima points out, the more new taxes Democrats will likely push for.
“When this emergency occurred, I concurred that the governor should use his authority,” King, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation and Labor and Commerce committees, told the Herald-Republic recently. “But now we’re five months later, and I no longer believe that this is an emergency. ... It’s time that this is no longer a one-man show. It’s time to bring in the Legislature to get their advice and their opinion.”
Lawmakers, officials and others across the state are echoing King’s sentiments.
“Delaying the resolution of the budget issues that were brought on by the pandemic will only result in adopting more drastic measures in the future that could have been lessened by taking action today,” GOP state Treasurer Duane Davidson said recently. “Responding to financial situations as they arise is just good fiscal policy and financial management. I believe this is a huge mistake that will be regretted. We have a precedence of the Legislature doing the exact opposite in the 2009 financial crisis.”
Closer to home, state Rep. Jeremie Dufault, R-Selah, had this to say: “I think we should have a special session right away and as often as we need to. The governor’s extraordinary powers are supposed to be used during short-term emergencies. After four months, he should not be making policy and spending money on his own authority. That’s what the elected Legislature is for.”
While we disagree with the premise that the emergency is over in light of rising COVID-19 infection rates in Washington, we do agree that the Legislature needs to help deal with the pandemic’s impact on the state’s finances. In addition to keeping legislators at arms’ length during the budget crisis, Inslee also is rolling the dice on favorable action from Congress. A recent Washington Post report cited projected state budget shortfalls totaling in excess of $550 billion nationwide through 2022, yet there’s no guarantee that Olympia will get any substantial help from Capitol Hill — and even if help is budgeted, there’s no telling when the money will arrive.
State Sen. John Braun of Centralia, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, reached out to other legislators in a letter July 13 that pushed for a special session. In the letter, he offered a pointed lesson in basic civics.
“The state constitution explicitly endows our branch with the legislative authority,” he wrote. “It is we who have the power to make laws and spend funds. It is a power that we should carefully and jealously guard. The executive is charged with a different role: enforcing the laws. (And the judicial branch with interpreting those laws.) Checks and balances. Distinct spheres. This was a critical insight of both our federal and state founders in writing the constitutions. It is this framework that we swore to uphold. It is a framework we are presently shirking.”
Toward the end of his letter, Braun added this insightful passage: “I do not expect, being in the minority, to frankly like a lot of the outcomes arising from a special session. But we will have protected and upheld the constitutional role envisioned of us as lawmakers.”
He’s correct. While we don’t always agree with Gov. Inslee’s decisions, methods or logic, he has been responsive and responsible in trying to keep all 7.7 million of his constituents safe and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic. But he is irresponsible in his failure to allow the 147 elected legislators from across the state to take up their duties and help forge the paths ahead during this critical time.
Governor, please don’t wait for a bailout from Washington, D.C., that might not happen. Please don’t just watch your pennies until January. We need all hands on deck. We need a special session.