OLYMPIA, April 29.—Lawmakers will have a long two-week layoff before they return May 13 to wrap up the business they couldn’t get done during their 105-day regular legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Sunday. The decision to allow a long break between the regular session and the next one raises a big question – will any talking get done in the meantime?
In a press conference shortly after the final gavels fell at 6:14 Sunday night, the Democratic governor said he will give the Legislature two weeks for R&R – and, as critics point out, an opportunity to raise money for political campaigns. The Democratic House and the Republican-leaning Senate remain so far apart on the budget that Inslee said he thinks it’s going to take them quite a while to come to an agreement. But traditional political wisdom is that he’s taking quite a risk: When frustrated lawmakers aren’t at their desks, demanding that their leaders take action, the pressure is off.
Noting the big gulf that remains between the two chambers – the House Democrats want more than $1 billion in new taxes, the Senate majority says nix – the governor said a budget deal isn’t even close. “I will tell you, the parties are not miles apart at the moment. They are light years apart. And we have a lot of work to do to get people to move to where we will need to reach a consensus here.”
Inslee said that at least by giving lawmakers a return date, he hopes to focus their minds.
Takes Democrats’ Side
Inslee’s decision, one of the most important for any governor, underscores the fact that he plans to be an active player in advancing the Democratic position on the budget, and not just a referee. That much was made clear by the fact that the House Democrats made no statements and issued no communiques Sunday night: The governor is speaking for them.
It also demonstrates that the new governor still hopes to have a big impact on the outcome, after a regular session that gave him little to crow about. Inslee said he does not plan to limit the scope of the special session, as governors often do in order to ensure that agreement is reached quickly. Instead he said he wants the Legislature to take action on a number of highly partisan measures, and his special-session proclamation does not attempt to restrict debate to matters associated with the passage of a budget. Inslee said he hopes lawmakers will take action on gun control, a measure requiring insurance companies to cover abortion, a bill providing college financial aid for the children of illegal immigrants, and a tax increase for transportation programs that includes a controversial bridge project over the Columbia River at Vancouver. Also on Inslee’s agenda is get-tough-on-drunk-driving legislation that he proposed in the final two weeks of session, long after deadlines for the consideration of bills had passed.
Inslee said the big question for him was whether he would set the session for a date certain, or simply let budget negotiators do their work and report back when ready. The two-week break “will allow the concentration of an imminent deadline and enough time to actually do the negotiations, and not have people sitting around here in the halls for too long.
“I picked two weeks. I think that is the appropriate time. It is going to take a lot of people becoming much more focused on our responsibilities and less on talking points right now.” And he said “people are going to have to get over their ideological fixations” with regard to taxes – a point Republicans say goes both ways.
By striding directly into the scrimmage, Inslee appears to be signaling that he wants to carry the ball for his team, a direct contrast to his predecessor in office, former Gov. Christine Gregoire, who played a more above-it-all arbitrator role whenever budget talks began. “He is not on the field wearing a black-and-white striped shirt with a whistle,” said House Finance Chair Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “He has that right. And that is where the people of the state expect him to be engaged in the game and all-in.”
Looks Like a Long Session
Inslee’s announcement followed a relatively quiet afternoon in the House and Senate as lawmakers dealt with the few remaining bills over which they have managed to reach consensus. Arguably the most important was the relatively non-controversial transportation budget – the debate over a gas-tax increase is a separate matter.
Inslee’s decision left lawmakers taking a deep breath Sunday night. It ought to be noted that the record of long “cooling-off periods” is not especially good. The modern era of legislative-session management might be said to have begun with a 1979 constitutional amendment that established the current 105-day schedule in odd-numbered budget-writing years. Lawmakers have gone into special session 22 times since 1980, and when a break has been allowed between regular and special sessions budget negotiators rarely have reached agreement before lawmakers report back for work. In one year, 1991, with a budget situation much like today’s and a political makeup of House and Senate that mirrors the current one, Gov. Booth Gardner called a five-week time out and a special session began June 10. Not a bit of work was accomplished during the recess and the dickering continued right up until the very last possible moment on June 30. For a time it appeared state government might have to shut down for lack of a budget. It is a cautionary tale Inslee might remember: He was a member of the House at the time.
The constitution establishes that a special session runs 30 days — meaning that the session has to end June 12. But with a wide-open agenda and no agreement in sight on the budget, there’s no telling if lawmakers will be done even at that point.
“I think the long layoff is probably politically motivated,” said state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, one of the oldest hands at the Legislature. “Everyone knows that you move quickly to do a special session to keep people engaged. They are going to want to leave, and so you put on more and more pressure. I think the only reason we’re doing this is because there are a couple of races out there – the [Seattle] mayoral race, for example, or in the state Senate. Legislators cannot raise money for campaigns when the session ends. It gives them a window, and it looks like that window is going to be two weeks.”
The open-ended policy agenda is an indication of Inslee’s lack of success during the regular legislative session, but it also means everything will be on the table when they return – a re-run of the regular session. “All the items that were important to the governor that didn’t make it out of the last legislative session are back on the table,” Roach said.
Remaining Tasks Look Daunting
The battle over the budget is looking difficult enough. Inslee and his fellow Democrats in the House are insisting that the only way to meet the Supreme Court’s demand for $1 billion or more in new K-12 funding is a tax increase. They’re looking to end a series of tax exemptions and reinstate a temporary business and occupations tax surcharge on service businesses that was due to expire in June.
In the Senate, controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, lawmakers have managed to pass a budget with bipartisan support that manages to accomplish the same thing without a tax increase. But Democratic budget-writers in the House and the governor’s Office of Financial Management complain that it relies on too many tricks.
It might be noted that any attempt by the governor to limit the topics that can be considered by the Legislature during a special session can be overridden in a myriad of ways, most typically by lawmakers who insist that bills be passed as part of any session-ending budget deal. And indeed, the majority coalition caucus in the Senate has a rather lengthy list of bills of its own, including worker-comp reforms, a call for a final decision on the state’s never-implemented family leave insurance plan, and other business-related measures.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the Republicans are standing with the governor – not the one who occupies the office today, but the one who ran for office last year appearing to take a firm stand against tax increases. Of course there’s compromising ahead – that’s the nature of politics, he said. But generally speaking, his team will do its best to make sure the governor is able to fulfill his campaign promises, whether he wants to do it or not. “We’ve been pretty clear on taxes, and I think the public has been,” Schoesler said. “New and higher taxes were not part of Gov. Inslee’s agenda. They are not part of our agenda. Unfortunately, it seems to be part of the House agenda now, and the governor seems to be reinterpreting his no-new taxes pledge.”