OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee and a key Democratic legislative leader have thrown cold water on the idea of a special legislative session this summer to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, after elected officials in both political parties said for months that such a session would be likely.
Democratic leaders and the governor say they haven’t ruled out calling lawmakers back to Olympia to begin confronting an $8.8 billion state operating budget shortfall through 2023 brought on by the economic downturn amid the virus.
Talk in recent weeks had focused around Inslee calling lawmakers back for a session in August. But House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said Thursday lawmakers would not return this summer.
Both Sullivan and Inslee suggested the state may not ultimately need to return until lawmakers gather in January for their regularly scheduled session.
Inslee said Washington has enough funding in its current, two-year state operating budget to function until lawmakers return in January.
“The reason there isn’t a necessity for a special session is right now, we do have adequate resources for the state to fulfill its obligations up to January,” said Inslee, in a news conference where he announced more stringent requirements for facial coverings.
“I cannot rule out some reason for a special session, you know, I can’t predict the future,” Inslee added later.
The governor cited moves he made earlier this year — including spending vetoes, and a hiring freeze as well as furloughs for state employees — as cost-saving measures that reduced the need for lawmakers to return swiftly.
The apparent reversal, if it holds, also reduces the likelihood of lawmakers returning to Olympia amid campaign season. The governor’s office, other statewide elected positions and a majority of legislative seats will go before voters on the Aug. 4 primary and Nov. 3 general election ballots.
Inslee and Democratic leaders say they’re still waiting to see what financial assistance Congress provides for state and local governments, whose budgets have been shredded as the economic downturn chilled tax collections.
Combined with the state’s roughly $3 billion in emergency reserves, federal money could drastically reduce the near-term pain for the state.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders say much work remains to be done before any special session to figure out how to adjust Washington’s current, two-year $53.3 billion state operating budget. About half of the projected shortfall, $4.5 billion, occurs in the current two-year budget.
That spending blueprint funds schools, prisons and public lands, as well as foster care, mental health programs and other social services.
Republican lawmakers, in the minority in the House and Senate, had wanted a special session to take place in June.
GOP lawmakers — who have largely been sidelined in recent months during the pandemic response — have pushed for deeper cuts now to reduce the number of painful decisions later. Since Washington’s budget must balance across four years, reductions made early help not just in the current budget, but can reduce the amount of anticipated spending in the future years.
“I find it very troubling that the majority and the governor would kick the can down the road with the issues we have facing us with the budget,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Schoesler said lawmakers should be making tough decisions like tax increases or budget cuts before voters cast ballots this November.
“I think hiding out until after election is not good public policy and it’s certainly not good budgeting,” said Schoesler.
Delaying a special session also means postponing legislative proposals to reform law enforcement in the wake of protests over police brutality.
“There’s a lot of things that make sense, transparency, involvement of the entire community in these” issues, Schoesler said.
He cited a call by Attorney General Bob Ferguson to require law enforcement agencies to collect and make public detailed information about incidents involving police deadly force.
That concept, which has been considered previously in the Legislature, has also drawn support from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
But, “You can’t do it while you’re not in session,” said Schoesler.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, struck a different tone from Sullivan and Inslee in what the state might see in coming months.
Billig said he informed Senate Democrats last week that a session “was looking less likely for August.”
But, “I think we will have a special session, and I think we just won’t know yet when it will be,” said Billig.
Billig cautioned that the work to reshape the budget is so substantial that it equates to the monthslong budget process usually seen in Olympia.
That process generally involves three separate proposals by the House, the Senate and the governor, which are then rewritten and negotiated and ultimately agreed upon by leadership.
“The budget work is really like a supplemental budget, it’s that scale of decisions and money,” said Billig.
Budget writers are doing work right now, he said, “so we can be prepared for at least an initial proposal.”
Lawmakers “have to have an agreement on what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it,” said Sullivan, the House majority leader. But, “we’re continuing work with the governor’s office on ways to save money.”
As for the political benefit to one party or the other holding — or avoiding — a special session, Billig said it would be probably be a wash either way.
“It’s not clear to me that it would be more beneficial to one side or the other to do it before” the elections, said Billig. “I think you can probably make a case that it could go either way.”