As the Legislature convenes today in Olympia for a “special session,” the monicker of the conclave reveals more than likely was intended.
Allow the website of the Secretary of State to provide an explanation: “The legislative cycle is two years long. Within that two-year cycle, there are two kinds of legislative sessions: Regular sessions and extraordinary, or special, sessions. … Extraordinary sessions are called by the governor to address specific issues, usually the budget.”
Forgive us for becoming mired in semantics, but it is worth noting that extra meetings by lawmakers were once considered “extraordinary,” which in popular usage implies something more special than “special.” The Secretary of State, in fact, lists all legislative sessions throughout state history, and refers to overtime appearances as “extraordinary” up until 2007, when they become merely special.
The first extraordinary session was held by the state’s first Legislature in 1890, as called by Gov. Elisha Peyre Ferry. It lasted nine days, which would, indeed, be extraordinary for this year’s Legislature. Alas, Gov. Jay Inslee has called lawmakers back for 30 days, which is the maximum for a special session — unless another special session is called.
And so it goes for Washington’s Legislature, which managed to plod through a 103-day session without completing its business. At the forefront is an impasse over the budget for the 2015-17 biennium. Democrats who hold the majority in the House have proposed a budget that includes a capital gains tax and a hike in business taxes; Republicans who control the Senate have embraced a budget that includes no new taxes and moves money from marijuana taxes and other items into the general fund. Republicans have refused to negotiate until the House either passes its tax increase or drops the idea.
Lest this seem like so much political posturing, the real impact is three-fold: Without an agreement by July 1, state government would go into a partial shutdown; the state Supreme Court is waiting to hear from lawmakers how they will fully fund K-12 education; and school districts across the state are unable to adequately plan for the next school year without knowing their funding level. Meanwhile, the details of a gas-tax increase designed to fund transportation projects also are on hold.
Those realities might be the only things lawmakers can agree upon, and the crux of the issue comes down to taxes. Senate Republicans are insistent upon no new taxes; House Democrats are equally adamant that the Senate budget was formed using smoke and mirrors. That would seem to leave little room for the kind of compromise that will be required. “We’re pretty far apart,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. “We have to come to some accommodation on a lot of complicated issues.”
It is reasonable to question whether the state constitution should be amended to allow for more than a 105-day session in odd-numbered years — the budget-writing years. Budgets have grown more complex as the state has grown in population over the decades. Yet it also is reasonable to question why lawmakers were unable to complete their work in the allotted time. The intransigence on both sides has reflected the thinking that a special session is inevitable, and that one side can simply wait out the other. Two years ago, two extra sessions were required before an agreement was reached on June 29.
As it stands, Washington’s Legislature is going into overtime. And there’s nothing extraordinary or even special about it.