Gov. Jay Inslee should work on getting the state’s financial house in order rather than wondering whether Congress will pay for a cleaning crew. Economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic will require action from the Legislature regardless of whether the federal government provides assistance.
The assumption has been that the governor will call lawmakers to Olympia for a special session this year — and he should. But Inslee’s office last week said no decision will be made until Congress provides financial help for state and local governments. “The governor and staff would then determine what remains to be done and if a special session is necessary,” spokesman Mike Faulk wrote last week in an email to The Seattle Times. “Talks with House and Senate colleagues continue.”
At issue is a projected $8.8 billion budget shortfall through 2023 — caused primarily by an economic shutdown dictated by COVID-19. With businesses shuttered and economic activity slowed, sales tax and other revenue streams have slowed to a trickle.
Inslee addressed some of the shortfall by trimming $235 million from the supplemental budget approved this year by lawmakers, along with $210 million from the next two-year budget. He also has placed a hiring freeze on state agencies and instructed them to prepare for a 15 percent budget cut. More will be necessary, and additional cuts — or increased taxes — should be forged using input from both parties in Olympia.
Legislative Republicans have been pushing for a special session and urged for one to be called in June. Democrats have been more inclined to follow Inslee’s lead. Meanwhile, a new state budget went into effect July 1.
“The reason sooner is better — state spending goes on. It’s not different than a home budget or a business’s budget,” state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, told The (Centralia) Chronicle. “If you know you have to cover this shortfall … the sooner you stop digging the hole the sooner you get out of the hole.”
Congress should, indeed, provide financial assistance for states that have been financially harmed by the pandemic. While President Donald Trump has tried to frame the issue in partisan terms, saying that bailing out “blue” states would be unfair to Republicans, providing assistance where it is needed will help stabilize the national economy.
But Congress is as unpredictable as coronavirus. Waiting for lawmakers to decide on relief bills while the state continues to spend money it might not ever have is irresponsible. The U.S. Senate has been focusing on an annual defense policy bill and on confirming Trump’s nominees in recent weeks rather than coronavirus relief, and the fact that Congress is now in a two-week recess further delays any action.
The two-year state budget that went into effect last week calls for $53.5 billion in spending, but it is clear that changes will be necessitated by the pandemic. As David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management, said in April: “The decline will likely be as bad as, if not worse than, what we saw during the Great Recession.” Unemployment numbers and updated budget projections have confirmed that assessment, reinforcing the need for lawmakers to get to work.
Adjusting the budget this year through spending cuts — and perhaps tax increases — will ease the burden in following years. And even if Congress provides assistance, it is unlikely the federal government will clean $8.8 billion out of the couch cushions and send it to our state.