Could rule changes strengthen state’s balanced budget requirement?


You wouldn’t know it from the fact that the days’ old 2015-17 budget has never been balanced and was signed into law with a $2 billion hole, but Washington has one of the strongest statutory balanced budget requirements in the country.

Per RCW 43.88.055 “The legislature must adopt a four-year balanced budget...”

Now while the House did manage to pass a balanced budget, the Senate did not with most Senate Democrats refusing to vote for the suspension of I-1351 (unfunded class size reduction) as assumed by the four-year outlook that was part of the budget deal.

Sen. Billig, however, said on the Senate floor the budget deal was only not to fund I-1351, not necessarily suspend it. Sen. Hargrove made it clear in this floor speech, though, that suspension of I-1351 was never raised as an issue by his caucus as part of the budget negotiations.

Why does any of this matter?

As noted by Sen. Hill, without suspension of I-1351 the budget doesn’t balance. 

So how can there be so much disagreement on what the budget deal was?

More importantly, how can the legislature adopt a budget that is in direct violation with the four-year balanced budget law?

There are a couple of things the legislature could do going forward to make sure these two questions are avoided.

The first is to be more transparent with budget negotiations.

The second is to consider a rule change that would prohibit the House or Senate from voting on their version of the operating budget until all the revenue and policy changes necessary to comply with the four-year outlook have been voted on first.

First let’s look at ways to improve the transparency of the budget negotiations.

As noted by the Spokesman Review:

“Therein lies the truth of the situation and the crux of the problem with the way the Legislature budgets. The two budget committees hold hearings on their initial proposals, which give lobbyists of all stripes a chance to sit in front of a panel and plead their case for a minute or two. But real negotiations are conducted in secret. It is the way budgets are done, and last week, possibly undone.

“Had those negotiations been open, and had the strings attached to the deal been public, no question and probably no sunrise debate. And no need to come back this week to fix things.”

Under the current legislative rules when there is disagreement between the House and Senate a “Conference Committee” can be called. As noted by the joint rules (Section 17 part 2):

“Conference committee deliberations shall be conducted in a manner consistent with the provisions of Senate Rule 45(3) and House Rule 24(D)(8) applicable to deliberations of standing committees.”

This means the deliberations are supposed to be in a public setting. So why didn’t this happen?

A conference committee was never called for the budget negotiations.

While lawmakers may say you can’t negotiate the budget in public (despite the requirement for local governments to do so) there is no reason why a process similar to the reforms we’ve been proposing for state labor agreements can’t be used that would require the proposals of each side to be publicly posted before the secret budget meetings so that everyone can see what is been proposed and what is being assumed in a budget deal.

This is the Costa Mesa Civic Openness in Negotiations (COIN) process.

Not only would the public have a better idea on what was occurring with the state’s most important legislation but lawmakers would also know what leadership was recommending so there would be no surprises as apparently happened for some Senate Democrats on I-1351.

Another rule change lawmakers should consider would be to prohibit a vote on the operating budget until all the policies necessary to bring the budget in compliance with the four-year outlook and RCW 43.88.055 have been acted on first.

By doing this the House and Senate would have known exactly what was assumed in the other’s budget proposals and that they actually had the votes necessary to implement the budget they were proposing.

This means the House and Senate would have already voted on their preferred approach to I-1351, eliminating any mystery.

Had this type of rule been in effect this year the budget may also have been acted on sooner eliminating one of the contentious debates that centered around whether the House had the votes for the tax increases necessary for its prior budget proposals.

Whether or not these rule changes are the right approach, we all should be able to agree that a $38 billion operating budget should not be negotiated in complete secrecy and that the state’s current balanced budget requirement needs strengthening.

Deficits do happen but a budget should at least be balanced for a minimum of one second and not immediately start with a $2 billion hole.

Although the third Special Session should already be over, lawmakers still have time to not only balance the 2015-17 budget but also adopt these proposed rules to help avoid this problem going forward.

- Jason Mercier is director of the, Center for Government Reform for the Washington Policy Center’s Tri-Cities office.


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