Threats of a government shutdown were a distraction and caused anxiety for a lot of state employees last month, but state officials say they doubt the Legislature’s logjam on a budget added real costs for taxpayers.
“I don’t think there would be an actual cost,” state budget director David Schumacher said, adding that the preparations unquestionably added to the workload of top staffers in state agencies. “It just kind of filled up a lot of time they could have been working on other things.”
No tally of costs is planned because, as Schumacher put it, it would just add another chore for agencies that could take “two weeks” to gather the data.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokesman, David Postman, said most affected staffers were putting in extra time they are not paid for on weekends or nights. The shutdown preparations were needed because most state agencies and government functions could not operate without explicit authority to spend money, which a budget gives.
A shutdown on July 1 would have been historic – although preparations for a shutdown were made in 1991 when then-Gov. Booth Gardner signed a budget late on June 30 – just minutes before the new budget year began. In 2001, then-Gov. Gary Locke signed a budget deal in late June and had executive orders ready to issue if a shutdown could not be avoided.
In both cases, government agencies went through what-if exercises and line workers were left to wonder if they’d be temporarily furloughed or go on working.
In this case, Inslee’s cabinet agency leaders and own staffers were identifying state services such as prisons that could remain open without a budget, and the agency leaders then had to notify more than 26,000 workers late in June that they could be furloughed and thousands of vendors that their contracts would be on hold.
In the end, a budget deal was reached and it passed the House and the Senate late on Friday, June 28.
Schumacher said most of the prep work was done at the senior level. “A lot of line workers, they may have been worried, but the directors, deputies and attorneys were all scrambling around,” Schumacher explained. “I think it just made for a less-than-efficient month of June. It clogged up a lot of things, but it was the right thing to do. We had to do it.”
At the Department of Social and Health Services, the state’s largest agency, many notices to clients whose services were in limbo never went out.
“The cost was more frustration than money,” spokesman Thomas Shapley said.
The frustration was felt differently at different agencies.
“The contingency planning did not pose a problem and may have been good for us to take that kind of look at the organization and see what we needed to do to move quickly on something like that,” said Jim Stevenson, spokesman for the state Health Care Authority, which oversees state worker health plans and also Medicaid.
“The uncertainty was something else,” Stevenson added. “People got layoff notices early in the week. When we weren’t able to rescind them until after 5 o’clock on Friday, a lot of worry went into that for staff. I’m sure that cut into some of the workload that otherwise would have been handled.”
At the Employment Security Department, which has been laying off staff permanently as some of the federal government’s Great Recession funding runs out, spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison said the threat of a shutdown mobilized staff.
“It was pretty much all hands on deck for a week here,” Hutchison said, suggesting that “many thousands of dollars worth of time” was diverted. “It’s not additional cost. Other work didn’t get done.”
Hutchison had taken leave to go to Palm Springs, Calif., when the crisis hit. “I was on vacation and I worked four of the five days I was down there,” she said, remembering countless conference calls on her own time. “I was literally sitting pool-side one night.”
Many ESD staffers already were upset at the ongoing layoffs, so for some it was “just one more thing.” Others never believed a shutdown would happen even as the agency was notifying hundreds of vendors that the state would not let them incur costs for the state if there was no budget to authorize the spending.
“Nevertheless, I got my first layoff notice ever,” Hutchison said. “It’s going to be framed on my wall.”