Waiting for a legislative special session is kind of like expecting rain in Washington. The outcome is inevitable, but we can’t be certain of when.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left state revenue in tatters, the need for a special session sometime this year is inescapable. Lawmakers will look to slash the government’s budget and must consider revenue-raising measures to make up for what is projected to be a $7 billion shortfall over the next two years. That is the preliminary projection; there is no telling how the outlook will be by mid-June, when an official revenue forecast is expected.
Although the unpredictable nature of the pandemic makes it difficult to project the ideal time for Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special session, legislators should prepare to embrace two traits when they convene: Transparency and focus.
The need for transparency was highlighted earlier this month, when a King County Superior Court judge ruled that a state tax increase on large banks was unconstitutional. The tax, passed earlier this year, was expected to bring in $133 million in revenue over the two-year budget cycle.
The law targeted fewer than two dozen out-of-state banks, violating the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That shortcoming likely could have been avoided. But Democratic leaders in Olympia filed a “title-only” bill and filled in the details in the waning hours of the legislative session, forgoing committee hearings, input from the targeted banks and legal analysis from state attorneys.
A special session to deal with the health and economic impact of COVID-19 will be essential for guiding the state through the crisis and beyond. Lawmakers would be wise to leave their bag of procedural tricks behind and work solely for the benefit of Washington residents and businesses.
Meanwhile, they also will need to focus on the task at hand, rather than debating Inslee’s stay-at-home orders. Senate Republicans last week urged the governor to convene a special session as early as mid-June, arguing that the Legislature has been left on the sidelines as the governor has used executive orders in managing the crisis.
“Republicans have listened to the people and looked at the data and have seen what the micromanagement by the executive branch is doing to our communities,” Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, asserted. “It is time for the legislative branch to intervene.” National polls, however, show that a strong majority of Americans are concerned about a spread of the virus and are opposed to prematurely reopening the economy. Rehashing stay-at-home orders would be counterproductive.
The legislative branch must, indeed, be involved with reconfiguring the state budget and with developing plans to help Washington businesses recover. But the timeline for that remains uncertain.
As Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, told The Columbian: “We want to wait until we go into a special session until we have good data about the economy and a plan for what’s going to pass,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re going to go, sit there and run up the cost for taxpayers. That’s not going to work.”
For now, legislative leaders should be devising protocols for lawmakers to meet in a safe manner when the time comes, and they should be reaching out to the other party for preliminary discussions. Partisan bickering at this crucial time would be frowned upon by voters.