Last week, when there was still a chance for us to finish our business in Olympia on time and adjourn this weekend, we were flabbergasted by an argument we heard from our Democratic colleagues in the House. As budget negotiations started, they said they should not be required to vote for a $1.5 billion tax increase they have proposed. If they took that vote, they said, we might criticize them for it.
And since our side was unlikely to support an enormous tax increase, they said they couldn’t see any point in voting for one either. When we told them we couldn’t take them seriously, they walked out of the room.
It is the technical reason we find ourselves in the sorry position we face today. We are ending our regular legislative session with a fizzle and heading into an overtime session. Many of us are very worried. This is no ordinary breakdown. These tactics of delay risk the Olympia equivalent of the nuclear option – a state-government shutdown for which Democrats must take the blame.
I hope the entire state can see how absurd our colleagues’ excuses are. Because if things continue on this course, in a little over two months we are going to be facing a crisis Washington state has never seen. We must pass a budget by June 30 or state government begins shutting down the next day, placing our most vulnerable citizens at risk, forcing massive furloughs, risking the state’s credit. To us it seems a political bargaining tactic that holds our state’s 7 million citizens as hostage.
Of course we would say a thing or two if our friends ever dared take that vote. They are suggesting the biggest tax increase in state history. We think it is wholly unnecessary; we have passed a complete budget that proves it. But if they truly believe their position has merit, they ought to be willing to defend it. This is the way budget negotiations have always proceeded. Each side votes for its proposal and then we talk. I think they understand this very clearly, and the excuses we have been hearing are for show.
Since opening day our friends have been offering hints they will take things to the wire to gain advantage at the bargaining table. Ross Hunter, the House Appropriations chair, said when the session started that he had purchased a six-month gym membership in town – even though he lives in King County and the session was supposed to end this coming Sunday. Last month Gov. Jay Inslee directed state agencies to begin planning for a shutdown. And there was the curious meeting that took place in the governor’s office two weeks ago, when Inslee told legislative leaders he wants a billion-dollar tax hike, or else he won’t sign the budget.
There is a general perception that the longer it takes to reach an agreement, the greater the advantage for the other team. Most Democrats live an hour or less from Olympia; most of us must drive an hour or more, some substantially more. We can’t return home every night; we’re lucky to see our families on weekends. Presumably we ache more when sessions stretch to infinity. In Olympia, we all know it is the Democrats who have not passed their budget and who forced the failure of negotiations. But after the federal-government shutdown of 2013, conventional thinking is that the public will point fingers at us.
Delay is bad enough. School districts face a budget-planning deadline of May 15, and without clear direction, they must send out pink slips to teachers and other employees. They also can’t start hiring the new teachers both chambers have agreed to fund. But a shutdown is unthinkable – or at least it ought to be.
You can follow the breadcrumbs, all right, straight to a government shutdown. I understand why some might think the pain and wreckage is worth it. This year’s fight isn’t just about a tax increase, but also about a return to the free-spending ways that prevailed before the recession. The battle also reflects the long-term goal of many on the other team to tax a greater share of the state’s personal income. I think they will have a difficult time winning that argument through ordinary means, and that is exactly as it should be. In the meantime the state has a right to expect both teams to fully engage in negotiations, play by the rules and behave responsibly. When this happens we can get the job done. Our side has already done its part, and we look forward to the day our friends do theirs.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.