The $43.7 billion budget deal passed Friday averted a government shutdown but was public for just hours before it was voted on, giving legislators and the public no chance to review it.
On Friday morning, about 14 hours before Washington’s state government was set to shut down, Gov. Jay Inslee hailed the “historic budget” that legislators had agreed to, one he said would fully fund education without harming the most vulnerable people in the state.
But Inslee and his advisers had not yet finished analyzing the document, which commits the state to more than $43 billion in spending over the next two years.
Crucial pieces of that budget deal — a bill levying new sales taxes on things like bottled water and online purchases — hadn’t even been publicly released.
After a select team negotiated for months in secret, the Legislature released about 1,000 pages of taxing and spending bills, including a historic education overhaul, less than 24 hours before those bills had to pass to prevent the government from a shutdown that would cause more than 30,000 workers to be laid off.
“My staff and I are still reviewing the budget proposal,” Inslee said.
Forget about the general public weighing in, legislators themselves were still reviewing the budget. And it’s a good bet many of them didn’t finish before voting on it.
“The fine print matters, and I don’t think any of us knows what is truly in this, and I am just deeply unsettled,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “The implications for 7 million people are too serious and too profound to pretend that this is just the normal operation of government. It is not. This is outside the bounds of acceptability, and I think we owe the people of this state an apology.”
If passing legislation is like making sausage, “This is probably the bloodiest sausage since I’ve been down here,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said she had about 300 pages of the budget left to read at the time she voted for it late Friday afternoon.
“We don’t have to play a game of chicken on this stuff,” Keiser said. “The lack of openness about the process and the lack of time really undercuts the faith in this body.”
For the third straight budget year, a divided Legislature — House controlled by Democrats, Senate controlled by Republicans — brought the state to the brink before agreeing on a two-year budget.
But at least in years past, final legislation was released days, not hours, before the deadline.
This year, even after the budget legislation was published, good luck finding it.
The main bill laying out the $43 billion in spending was Senate Bill 5883, colorfully titled “An act relating to fiscal matters.” The Senate Ways and Means Committee discussed it Friday morning.
But if you went on the legislative website to follow along, searching for the text of Senate Bill 5883, you would not find the 616-page spending bill that was released in the wee hours of Friday morning. It wasn’t posted there until Friday afternoon.
Instead you found a one-page bill, released in March. The bill’s entire text was one sentence: “This act may be known and cited as the fiscal matters act.”
To find the actual bill, which would later be subbed in for the one-sentence version, you had to go to a separate website, jointly run by a legislative committee and the governor’s Office of Financial Management.
Another bill crucial to the budget agreement, giving manufacturers a tax cut, read in its entirety, “This act may be known and cited as the revenue act,” until Friday afternoon, when it was replaced with 91 pages of tax cuts, credits and exemptions.
“I found it because I know where to look, but if all you’re looking for is the bill number, you’ve got no chance,” said Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, a business-backed think tank. “In my 17 years, I have never seen what’s happened in the last 24 hours.”
The one-sentence bills are what’s called “title-only” bills. Legislators use them, essentially, as placeholders, to get their bill introduced and in the system. Then, when they figure out what the bill should actually say they use a “striking amendment” to erase that one sentence and plug in a whole new bill.
It’s not supposed to work this way.
State law requires the Legislature to pass a budget at least 30 days before the new two-year budget period starts on Saturday. But a decades-old attorney general’s opinion essentially rendered that law unenforceable.
Senate rules require that bills be public for three days before they’re voted on. But that rule can be waived if the Senate “deems it expedient” by a majority vote.
A 2014 bill would have prohibited title-only bills and would have required all bills (and substitutes) to be public for three days before any vote or legislative action.
It went nowhere.
Concerns with the secrecy and schedule of the legislative process aren’t just academic; there is the potential for real problems to arise, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Big, complicated bills frequently have minor but impactful technical problems that the Legislature will now have little or no opportunity to fix.
“To do all this in secret, to come up with a proposal and then give nobody a reasonable opportunity to comment on it,” Nixon said, “it’s just grossly irresponsible.”