Wednesday, March 10, 2010
When state lawmakers gathered in Olympia on Jan. 11 for a 60-day session they had one clear, overriding task -- balance the budget.
Those 60 days are up on Thursday but legislators still have that one clear, overriding task looming. A special session -- at a cost of about $20,000 per day -- now seems a likely possibility.
"We're dealing with the largest fiscal problem the state Legislature has faced since the Great Depression," said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who is one of the budget negotiators. "I think we need to go into a short special session to get it right."
We agree lawmakers should get it right, but they've already had 58 days to do so.
Democrats control the House and Senate by solid margins. Minority Republicans can object all they want to the Democrats' plans -- and they do -- but they don't have the votes to stop Democrats from raising taxes, making cuts or passing the budget. The only people stopping Democrats from an agreement are Democrats.
And there is also the culture of crisis that thrives in Olympia. Lawmakers generally wait until the last possible minute of the last hour of the last day to get their work done. Sometimes they even go past that time but actually stop the clock (as in pull the plug) to gain a few extra hours.
This practice of procrastination resulting in late nights was a source of irritation to former state Rep. Peter Brooks, R-Walla Walla. At one time he tried to change the rules to force lawmakers to get the job done without staying in session around the clock. He didn't get far.
If legislators have 60 days to get a job done they almost always take those 60 days -- and then some. Calling the Legislature into a special session is really not accurate. These sessions have occurred so frequently over the past two decades there really isn't anything very special about them.
We concede lawmakers have very difficult decisions to make given the $2.6 billion revenue shortfall.
The deep recession has reduced tax collections. The higher than usual unemployment has resulted in more people needing state services. Public schools are being forced to make cuts. Colleges and universities are raising tuition at double-digit rates.
But since lawmakers knew the job wasn't going to be easy, they should have established earlier deadlines to make sure a budget would be in place by the time the clock strikes midnight Thursday.
Spending tens of thousands of dollars for a special session feels wrong at a time when jobs are being lost and many people are going without raises.
Dropping $20,000 a day might not seem like much in relation to a $2.6 billion budget hole, but it sure does to the family trying to find enough money to make the house payment or buy insurance or send a child to college.
A special session doesn't have to happen. If it does, it's a waste of money.