Nothing special — or costly — about session

Legislature needs overtime on a fairly regular basis

bshannon@theolympian.comMay 6, 2013 

Here’s a couple of things to keep in mind when state lawmakers return to special session on May 13.

First: The cost is likely to be small in the grand scheme of legislative spending. Costs ran less than $300,000 for two special sessions that lasted a total of 31 days last year, less than 0.001 of 1 percent of the state operating budget.

Second: These overtime periods are called special sessions — or extraordinary sessions. Yet no one who works in the Legislature thinks they are the least bit special. Overtime periods have been needed in more than two-thirds of the years since 1981.

Special sessions typically take place when there is a fiscal downturn or budget crisis or when the government is divided. This year, both factors are at play with Republicans holding sway in the Senate and Democrats firmly controlling the House.

“It would be nice to avoid it. I think everybody would like to avoid it,” longtime Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia said. “But when you’re dealing with three budgets totaling, what, $70 billion, different parties and a Senate negotiating team that has less than three years’ experience … I don’t care how smart they are. You can’t learn all the nuances and have the institutional memory with that little seniority.”

The Legislature will absorb costs for the overtime period out of existing budgets.

“The Senate and House always pay the cost of special sessions out of existing appropriations and offset the cost with savings or, if necessary, additional cuts,” says Brad Hendrickson, deputy secretary of the Senate, who helps administer operations.

The major cost for two special sessions last year was for per diems — the $90 per-day expense allotment lawmakers receive on top of the $42,106 base pay given to rank-and-file members (top leaders get $50,146). A few lawmakers decline to take per diems during special sessions.

Costs for the 31 days of special session were $141,631 for the House and $150,092 for the Senate, according to legislative reports.

 • House costs included $81,168 total for per diems, $18,760 for members’ mileage reimbursements, $11,904 for district aides’ travel and per diems, and $29,798 for temporary session staffing.

 • Senate costs included $80,827 in salary and benefits for extra staffing, $63,765 for per diems, an estimated $2,500 for travel and an estimated $3,000 for printing.

House Deputy Chief Clerk Bernard Dean said last year’s expenses had included payments for “minimal” staffing. The House added temporary security and parking personnel during the special sessions. Hendrickson said the same was true for the upper chamber.

In some years, only top leaders and budget writers are brought back during negotiations, which cuts costs. Things could get more costly if all 147 lawmakers are in town for a full 30 days — or if the first special session turns into a second session.

Hunt doesn’t have to travel far to get to the Capitol, but he doesn’t relish the idea of returning.

“It’s always a headache because you can’t plan,” Hunt said, noting that some members who drive from across the state lose their apartments rented for regular session. “Now they are faced with: ‘Do I go to a hotel or motel and pay $100 a night or spend two hours on the road every day?’ I don’t think it’s something we hanker for.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

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