Political permanence doesn’t infuse any desire to change the rules of the game. Both the Democratic House speaker and Republican Senate majority leader have served more than 22 years.
IT has become common in Washington to look upon legislative special sessions as the norm.
Eight years ago in these pages, as a three-term state representative from Olympia, I wrote of the “self-congratulatory rituals” and “glacial pace” of the Washington state Legislature. I noted that big decisions are forced toward session’s end because the Legislature wasted time doing things such as passing myriad floor resolutions (“We support Miss Washington!”), and squandering a day’s worth of potential floor action honoring its own dead in a candlelit ceremony.
None of that has changed.
Sometimes I think it’s a downside to paying part-time legislators more than beginning teachers with a base pay — not counting per diems — soon to exceed median household incomes in 11 of Washington’s counties.
The ability to collect per diem is no incentive to hasten the legislative pace. It brings in another $120 a day (nontaxable), more than a home care worker’s daily wages, and is regarded by many legislators as an entitlement akin to Medicare.
When legislators were gleefully cutting state workers’ salaries during the Great Recession, I offered a floor amendment to apply that same cut to the per diem — its rejection was a rare showing of bipartisanship, as legislators tearfully complained of a hardship they didn’t mind inflicting upon their own staffs.
Even floor debate drags on because, unlike other states where legislators are forced to venture out into the public eye to forage for sustenance, the Washington Legislature maintains its own taxpayer-subsidized dining rooms.
There has to be a better approach.
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.
Contrast that openness, which also applies to the creation of the House and Senate budgets, with what occurs in Washington.
There I was aghast as a freshman House member in 2005 to have the budget revealed as a fait accompli, where even questions, quite apart from amendments, were discouraged. I remember one colleague wilting, mid-sentence, in the face of a glare upon asking an innocent question in my caucus about a budget proviso.
In New Hampshire, the audience during budget hearings routinely includes legislators not on the budget committees, and they will ask questions or offer input. They also join lobbyists and everyday citizens to watch the open work of the conference committee play out.
In Washington, the budget conferees meet behind closed doors, if they meet at all — typically they just, in passive-aggressive fashion, “exchange paper” through staff. Political permanence doesn’t infuse any desire to change the rules of the game. Both the Democratic House speaker and Republican Senate majority leader have served more than 22 years.
None of this is to say other states are perfect and Washington awful. I know many hardworking, terrific Washington legislators frustrated with the budget impasse. But for both citizens, and for legislators themselves, it is worth asking how the process can be improved to avoid history repeating itself, year after year.