Republican state lawmakers on Aug. 17 again urged Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special session to confront a multibillion-dollar budget deficit resulting from the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As they have for months, members of the GOP caucuses in the Senate and House contend that dealing with the projected shortfall of roughly $9 billion in the next three years will require the Legislature to make some difficult decisions on funding state programs and services.
Those decisions are going to be tougher the longer the Democratic governor waits to summon lawmakers into an extra session, they said at a virtual news conference.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the minority party’s chief budget writer, warned of “draconian cuts” if the governor and majority Democrats “kick the can down the road” by waiting until the regular session in January to act.
Also Monday (Aug. 17), GOP lawmakers said the two-term governor should not be spending billions of federal pandemic relief dollars without the involvement and consent of the Legislature. The legislative branch is responsible for appropriating tax dollars, they said. “I feel like the governor has usurped our fiscal authority,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, who did not participate in the news conference. “It is an abuse of power.”
A state law gives a governor the ability to spend unanticipated receipts that arrive when lawmakers are not in session. In the pandemic, the governor has reached out to legislative leaders in the process of making decisions on how to use the money, according to a spokeswoman.
“They see our proposal before we send it over. They make suggestions. We have accepted many of those,” said Communications Director Tara Lee. “The Legislature, both fiscal and leadership, are in the middle of these decisions.”
Inslee has repeatedly said there’s no immediate need for a special session. The state has hefty reserves to handle challenges in the current budget, which runs through June. And he points to cost-cutting moves he’s made, such as a hiring freeze, worker furloughs and vetoes of items in the spending plan lawmakers passed in March.
Now, before deciding on a special session, Inslee wants to receive the next state revenue forecast, in September, and learn what additional federal aid will be coming to Washington.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said it’s pretty clear among Democrats that erasing the shortfall will require a blend of cuts, new revenue and federal funds. That final piece is an important one, he said.
“Things will be a lot clearer once we know what they’re going to do,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said he thinks a special session is “likely” — though it may be after November’s election.
“It is just a matter of the timing,” he said. “It is smart to wait until we have all the information we need to make the best decision for the people of Washington state.”