Legislature must end overreliance on special sessions
Like most Washingtonians, I too am fed up with the Legislature’s overreliance on special sessions due to lawmakers’ inability to pass an operating budget on time. I’m currently serving my fifth year in the House, which means this is the third biennial operating budget I’ve seen negotiated. This is also the ninth special session I’ve been a part of. And what’s playing out now is largely the same song and dance we’ve seen time and time again.
For far too long, legislators have preserved a process where deadlines and cutoffs don’t matter, hyper-partisan budgets are presented as reasonable starting points for negotiations, and collaboration is nonexistent. As if that’s not bad enough, there’s a lack of genuine leadership coming from the majority parties in both chambers, as well as from the governor’s office.
I sense among the rank-and-file in the Legislature an absolute disgust with the process, and for good reason. If we don’t get our act together, taxpayers will continue to bear the brunt of our irresponsibility, and good legislators will not continue to serve.
To fix this problem, we must reform how our budget process works. Fortunately, this can be achieved through amending existing House and Senate rules. I’m proposing three immediate changes to these rules:
First, during long sessions when we write the two-year budget, we need to move our policy cutoff dates up by at least three or four weeks. While these dates are designed to give us plenty of time to introduce and debate legislation, we’re spending far too much time debating mundane policy and not enough developing a genuine budget. I believe it makes more sense for the policy period in long sessions to equal the length of the policy period in short, 60-day sessions, so we can give proper attention to the two-year budget.
Second, all cutoff dates need to matter and be enforced going forward. Exceptions are appropriate at times, of course, but there are far more exceptions than necessary. We must hold ourselves accountable to these deadlines and take them seriously.
Third, operating budget negotiations between the parties in both chambers need to be much more collaborative from the start – especially when the Legislature is as evenly divided as it is now. I’m always impressed at how capital budget negotiators come together to develop their $4 billion budget. There’s no reason why operating budget negotiators can’t do the same. Unless, of course, playing political games and grandstanding is more important than doing the work we were sent here to do.
Candidly, there are a handful of people who have let their ego and personality get in the way of good governing. What we need are strong leaders who show up to the negotiating table, put partisanship aside, and get to work on behalf of the people of Washington state. And we also need our governor to be actively engaged in the process.
If we’re going to protect the most vulnerable while developing a world-class education system and the strongest state economy in the nation, we’re going to have make some changes in how we go about tackling our priorities. We must focus on restoring your confidence in us by working diligently every day we’re in session to solve our state’s challenges and deliver on our promises to you. That’s what you sent us here to do, and you should accept nothing less.
Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, serves as the assistant ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.