Editor’s Note: Here’s another update from our correspondent in Olympia, the Legislative Junkie.
Tuesday brought a magical confluence of two of the most important days on the legislative calendar: Budget Day and Potato Day. The former is brought to you by House Ways & Means Committee chair Ross Hunter (D-Microsoft) and his introduction of the House’s version of the 2011-2013 supplemental operating budget, and it means long committee hearings filled with pleas for more funding. The latter is brought to you by the Washington State Potato Commission, and it means free baked potatoes for everyone.
Both cause heartburn.
Budget Day always starts with a press conference early in the day. The budget writers (leadership of the Ways & Means Committee) give a presentation and take reporters’ questions. Legislative staff hands out reams worth of supporting documents, causing a feeding frenzy among lobbyists (seriously, I was shoved out of the way during a document rush last year). The 231-page budget is then pored over by the press, lobbyists, and citizens in advance of…
The tables in the halls outside the hearing room are lined with sign-in sheets for those wishing to testify. The sheets are grouped by topic: Natural Resources, Education, Health and Human Services, General Government. A crush of people will gather to sign in for their chance at 90 seconds in front of the committee. The hearing room fills up quickly, hiking the heat in the room beyond levels of reasonable human comfort. Eventually, overflow rooms are opened, where citizens and lobbyists gather and watch TVW. The best part of watching from the overflow room is the looser rules of decorum. You can chat with your neighbor without interrupting the speaker, occasionally there is gentle heckling, and some people take a moment to eat.
Public testimony on a painful budget (like this one, and the last several) feels like equal parts Soviet showtrial, Broadway audition, and Kafkaesque visit to a shopping-mall Santa. Citizens and lobbyists are called forward four at a time, give their name, and make their case: don’t cut training for public defenders, thank you for maintaining Basic Health, please increase prescription drug coverage for developmentally disabled adults, make our tax system equitable, et cetera. Those who speak past their allotted time are curtly silenced. All comments are bracketed with polite thank you’s, regardless of how angry, mournful, or desperate the speaker is.
More than 100 people testify as committee members trickle on and off the dais. Hours of bleakness go by. By the start of the third hour, the hearing enters its Bataan Death March phase. Occasionally a speaker – or sometimes a legislator – will try for levity. Fortunately, in such gloomy conditions, the standard for humor is low.
What’s in this version of the budget? Cuts to higher education. Cuts to health and human services. A one-day delayed payment to school districts (an accounting trick to move the liability until the next biennium). Basic Health and K-12 education seem to be miraculously saved. And, perhaps most happily, the House budget assumes more than $18 million in new revenue by eliminating a tax loophole for banks that operate in 10 or more states. That this budget assumes that revenue indicates that Representative Hunter has enough votes for the 2/3 majority required to raise taxes.
The Senate will release its budget sometime next week, and negotiators have until the end of session on March 8 to reconcile the two. Expect that the Senate budget will be more conservative (more cuts, less revenue, larger ending fund balance), as the Senate defers more to Republican and Roadkill Senators in budget negotiations.