Will House budget play by the rules?

Mar 18, 2015

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Some things go without saying. It’s a good idea to obey traffic signals, you ought to pay your taxes, and you should always eat your vegetables. Some things here in the Legislature are just as basic. When our Democratic colleagues in the House present their budget proposal sometime in the next week or so, we in the Senate certainly hope they will play by the rules.

We shouldn’t have to say this. It’s just that there are so many warning signs. There were big holes in the proposal Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee put forward last December, and right now there are hints we might see even bigger ones in the one we get from the House. So I think it is important to say something in advance about what we expect from an honest budget proposal.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the rules of the Legislature, each year one chamber or the other kicks off the budget debate by making a proposal. This year the House makes the first move. After that, we make a proposal, and presumably we negotiate and then we compromise. The hitch is that for any of this to work, the proposals put forward by the House and the Senate actually have to have the support of the House and the Senate.

Anyone with an ear to the floor can hear the rumblings of trouble. House Democratic leaders have been saying for months Washington can’t survive without a major tax increase. We disagree, but leave that aside. We have yet to hear any wild cheering from the House Democrats for any of the tax schemes on the table – carbon taxes, capital gains taxes or anything else. Honestly the chance is low that any such tax bill would pass the House, because the Democrats have just 51 of 98 members. Fifty votes are required to pass a budget in the House, a simple majority. (Twenty-five are required in the Senate.)

This raises the possibility that the House might pass a budget bill but leave taxes to be settled later. This could snarl up the negotiations and keep us here well past our scheduled adjournment date – and I should mention that this has happened before, as recently as 2003.

Now, if a majority vote is a problem, how about a supermajority? Inslee’s budget proposal was based on a dubious idea — that both chambers of the Legislature would be willing to take a 60 percent vote to raid the rainy day fund. His proposal also would violate a state law that requires budgets to be balanced over four years, because it didn’t offer a long-term fix for Initiative 1351, the fabulously costly class-size measure the state teachers’ union pushed through last year. Inslee proposed only a temporary suspension; to comply with the law any suspension would have to last at least four years.

Inslee could get away with a blue-sky proposal. The House can’t – especially if we are going to stick to schedule and adjourn by April 26. An honest budget proposal has to be a full-meal-deal, with all the taxes and all the legislation required to make it work.

The package also must survive the test of a vote on the House floor. We’ll be happy to debate tax increases if the House is willing to pass them. But as our budget chairman, Andy Hill, observes, an unbalanced spending proposal doesn’t count. Our side won’t play with funny money, and we expect the same from the other team.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.