Washington’s Legislature should convene in a June special session to immediately reduce state spending.
This is painful. Important programs will be trimmed. But with state revenue falling by perhaps $7 billion because of the pandemic-driven economic shutdown, there is simply no choice.
Everything must be on the table as taxpayers across Washington struggle, including reopening state employee contracts to reflect new economic realities. Contracts include a 3% raise for state employees, after a 3% raise last year.
Democratic majority leaders are mulling whether to hold a special session in June or August. There are arguments for both, but June is the clear choice for several reasons.
Right-sizing the budget will be easier in June, before more than $1 billion in new spending starts with the fiscal year July 1. Politically and practically, it’s harder to cut spending after it’s begun, and it’s inefficient to start programs that will be cut before long.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, who has experience making difficult cuts in state and local government during earlier downturns, said it well: “What I’ve always seen is, the earlier you act, the less deep your cuts have to be,” the Tacoma Democrat told this editorial board Thursday.
June is also when Washington learns about the severity of its budget crisis. That happens June 17, when the state issues its official revenue forecast. So far there’s only been a rough, preliminary estimate of $7 billion lost through 2023. Also that day, the state issues a caseload forecast, projecting how many people will use services like medical assistance and education, to inform budget writers.
At that point state agencies should also have presented plans to reduce spending by 15% , as requested May 13 by Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office of Financial Management.
In a letter requesting those plans, Inslee’s budget chief, David Schumacher, said planning for spending reductions must begin immediately, even though the shutdown’s full effects aren’t yet known.
“It is clear, however, that we must start taking steps now to confront this fiscal crisis,” Schumacher wrote.
Legislators should act with similar urgency. As of June 17, they will have plenty of information to plan and justify budget revisions.
State Sen. John Braun, a Lewis County Republican and budget lead, said this is an equity issue. Vulnerable residents will lose more services in the future, if the state doesn’t rein spending increases taking effect in July, he told this board.
In addition to budgeting, legislators need to address expiring emergency proclamations and clarify that federal paycheck-protection loans aren’t subject to state’s business-and-occupation taxes.
Waiting until August would provide more time to prepare and receive additional information, particularly about federal relief dollars the state can distribute. Then more informed decisions could be made, and there’s less chance of needing another special session later in the year, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said.
But waiting also defers hard budget decisions until after the state’s Aug. 4 primary election. Primary voters should know how incumbents acted when confronted with difficult decisions.
Public attention will also be low in August. Hopefully Washingtonians will be out and about by then, less tethered to homes and screens.
Inslee should assist by declaring a revenue shortfall early in June. Obviously there’s a shortfall — he’s asked agencies to plan for 15% cuts — but that declaration is needed to renegotiate employee contracts. Jinkins said they’re part of budget-cut deliberations.
“I would take nothing off the table in terms of how we address it,” she said.
If salaries increase, the state may then have to use selective furloughs to reduce spending. Jinkins dislikes that approach since “you pick winners and losers.”
Legislative leaders are busy wrangling with these questions. By holding a special session, this work benefits from involvement of all legislators and members of the public, who can participate virtually if not in person. More than a dozen state Legislatures, including Alaska and California, have resumed or scheduled sessions to occur remotely or with protective measures.
Gov. Inslee, it’s time to declare a revenue shortfall and call for special legislative session starting in the third week of June.