At least protesters are making good use of Capitol
Clearly I misunderstood.
I must be part of the 99 percent – those who thought the current emergency session of the Washington state Legislature would look like an emergency room. Except for the protesters, whose demeanor has varied from milling about to storming the castle, the place has looked more like a waiting room.
These things take time, I was told. Lawmakers have only just arrived, so they shouldn’t be expected to solve a $2 billion budget problem in just a few days. Or 30 even.
That’s the constitutional length of these so-called special sessions. But budget leaders are now suggesting this might be a practice session in which they study the problem and make ready to act once the regular session starts in January. That approach led one lobbyist to ask whether this should be considered the pre-season and whether the legislators’ statistics should be excluded from their season totals.
Of course, the problem has been known for weeks, if not months. It was early August when Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered agencies to develop plans to cut budgets by up to 10 percent. It was Sept. 15 when state economist Arun Raha broke the bad news that our long state nightmare wasn’t quite over. It was Oct. 27 when Gregoire brought out her nasty lists of budget cuts – one bad, the other worse.
And it was Nov. 21 when she unveiled her formal budget request, along with a proposal to negate some of her suggested cuts with a half-penny sales tax increase.
After all that, it’s unlikely there are budget cuts yet to be considered, savings techniques yet to be discovered, revenue yet to be found. It seems, therefore, that the extra time in session isn’t for technical reasons. Drafting a budget bill takes work, but that’s why both houses have professional and highly skilled budget staffs. No, this delay is for political purposes – gathering the votes for each of the hundreds of cuts and then to place that sales tax hike before voters next year.
Those are hard votes, and both human nature and history say they are best taken under deadline pressure. Yet legislative leaders seem to be lowering the heat, not raising it, by suggesting the session will end well before Christmas with a solution in hand or not. Once the idea of coming back in January to finish the new budget is dangled before desperate lawmakers, it is likely to be embraced.
There is little haste, no urgency. It makes old-timers long for the days of the so-called Gang of Four – a rather undemocratic and opaque process used in the 1980s and 1990s by which leaders pounded out deals and then convened the session solely for the constitutional formality of passage. Instead, we have a rather unsightly scene of electeds sitting about, most knowing even less about the goings-on than columnists.
Democracy, it seems, is not pretty.
So why, exactly, are they in Olympia so soon? As a stage for colorful and sometimes violent protests, of course. While some might complain about this occupation of people calling for an end to cuts and for more taxes on the rich, at least the protesters are making good use of the buildings.
Olympia is used to protests. Often groups are practically lined up to use the sweeping stairs facing the Temple of Justice or the glittering rotunda inside the Legislative Building. But the Legislature is not used to protests that attempt to disrupt the process – shouting from the galleries, pounding on committee room doors, going hand-to-hand (and in some cases teeth-to-hand) with state troopers.
The protests are so much on the mind that some state workers thought it wise to send an announcement about an exterior inspection of the Legislative Building’s dome. Those will be workers for a contractor rappelling down the side, the state announced, not protesters trying to make a point.
Of course, now that the idea is out there ...
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 email@example.com blog:thenewstribune.com/politics Twitter: @CallaghanPeter