To best deal with the coronavirus pandemic in Washington — and prepare for its aftermath — Gov. Jay Inslee must seek the input of the Legislature. The governor has waited far too long to call lawmakers to a special session.
The state’s revenue forecast predicts an $8.8 billion budget shortfall through 2023, with about half of that impacting the current $53.3 billion two-year budget. The longer lawmakers are kept on the outside, the harder it will be to fix the damage.
Yet Inslee is reticent, saying there is no legislative consensus for spending cuts or tax increases, and arguing that officials should wait to see what relief is provided by Congress. That could be a long wait; Congress is mired in partisan bickering over coronavirus relief for individuals, rather than focusing on help for states and municipalities. In addition, election fundraising by incumbents is prohibited when the Legislature is in session, further complicating the issue.
Still, Inslee should follow the example set by Oregon, where Gov. Kate Brown has called two special sessions this summer. During a one-day session on Monday, Oregon lawmakers closed a $1.2 billion budget hole by approving about $400 million in cuts and administrative savings and by tapping into the state’s reserves.
That should provide a template for how Washington can proceed, but there also were examples of what not to do. Oregon lawmakers passed bills related to the use of force by police and legislative rules for dealing with harassment complaints. While those warrant attention in Washington, as well, they should be put off until the regular legislative session in January. For now, COVID-19 and the budget should be the only concern.
Republicans have been calling for a special session since March. While that was premature because the scope of the pandemic was unclear, the need to forge consensus and allow lawmakers to do their jobs is now paramount. Washington’s state budget is heavily dependent on sales tax, and those revenues have diminished with businesses temporarily or permanently closing and with consumers reducing spending.
The situation likely will get worse before it gets better, with coronavirus maintaining its hold on public health and wreaking havoc on the economy.
Inslee used line-item vetoes to cut $445 million from the 2020 supplemental budget that was approved by the Legislature just as COVID was taking hold. He also has liberally used proclamations to address the pandemic.
According to the governor’s office website, he has issued 66 proclamations along with hundreds of updates to those proclamations since the beginning of the outbreak. But when one order cut rates for nursing homes, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, wrote to colleagues: “I respectfully submit that to sit idly by and allow this reduction to move forward is to be complicit in resulting harm. … This is illustrative of the need to formally act as the Constitution envisions, not through back channels.”
Indeed, Inslee should engage with leaders from both parties, forging an agreement before calling lawmakers together; there is no sense in holding a session if the outcome is in doubt. But Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, the Senate Republican leader, told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review last week: “I did not hear from the governor for 3 1/2 months. … This week, he did call and ask me what I thought about something. We had a brief and amiable visit.”
More conversations need to take place. As the governor frequently reminds Washingtonians in regards to the pandemic, we’re all in this together.