Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Yakima Herald-Republic. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
State pols like to throw around the Latin phrase “sine die,” an erudite if somewhat pompous way of saying they’ve closed a legislative session, stopped all the speechifying and backroom bargaining and have revved their cars, ready to hit I-5 and return home.
The literal translation of “sine die,” which the Legislature — oh, what’s the kindest verb? — achieved near the stroke of midnight Sunday is “without day,” meaning in modern context that lawmakers have adjourned and no date has yet been chiseled in stone to reconvene.
But “without day” also can pretty much describe the manner in which legislative leaders performed their duties in the final 72 hours of the biennial budget 105-day session to avoid having to invoke overtime. In other words, business as usual.
Little, it seems, was done in the light of day — literally and figuratively — a cloak of late-night bargaining and voting all but blotting out transparency due the public. This is not the first time a Washington Legislature, like a frantic teen cramming for a final exam, has waited until the final weekend for their “big reveal” of budget apportionment. Both parties, in the past, have been guilty of such machinations disguised as procrastination, but just because it now is the norm doesn’t make it acceptable.
By the time every billowing decimal point settled, every rushed vote toted up, the Legislature did pass the first state budget to exceed $50 billion, with tax hikes to fund programs news, old and revamped.
With the Democrats in charge of all three prongs of state government — House, Senate and the governor’s office — there was little suspense that the budget would tilt heavily toward their agenda, which includes more school funding (lifting a cap on local levies), a renewed effort to address mental-health shortfalls, ambitious climate-change measures that will phase out all carbon-emitting electricity sold in the state by 2045, and other issues both contentious (establishing a public option for health insurance) and curious (approving human composting).
Close observers also correctly predicted that Democrats would pay for the programs via tax hikes, the only question being which taxes felt by whom? The most controversial proposal was a capital gains tax on profits from selling stocks and bonds, which many felt violated the state constitution and would face a stiff court challenge. That measure failed to even get a vote, but legislators did approve $830 million in new taxes over the next two years to support the operating budget and other programs.
The biggest tax hike,
$376 million, will come from the coffers of tech companies such as Amazon and Microsoft. Well-off private citizens who sell their home for $1.5 million or more will face an increased tax rate, while those who sell a home priced at $500,000 or less would see a tax cut.
All of this dead-of-night numbers crunching is standard stuff for a legislature, granted. But is it too much to ask of state lawmakers to plan and make sure the process gets a healthy debate and full vetting before votes are hastily taken, often in the wee hours when any sensible person is asleep or binge watching “Game of Thrones”?
We suspect — and this suspicion has long been shared by whichever party is in the minority — that House and Senate leaders had their spending plans in place long before the details were released. And, in fact, leadership announced Thursday afternoon they had reached a budget deal but that they would not reveal details for at least another 24 hours. But that didn’t stop the Senate from voting late Thursday (11 p.m. for those counting at home) for the real-estate excise tax, even though most senators were still in the dark on what was in the spending plan.
Voting on tax measures before releasing spending and revenue plans is, at best, not optimal for those who want a full grasp of a bill’s details.
Just because it’s become something of a tradition in Olympia doesn’t make it right. In 2017, when the last biennial budget was hammered out, lawmakers released their budget agreement the same day they needed to pass it to avoid a government shutdown. Any legislator who tried to scan the document probably came away with smudged fingertips, given that the ink on the document was barely dry. Also recall that the state’s landmark (and complicated) public school overhaul, a response to the McCleary ruling, was released by a bipartisan committee one day before the session ended.
A quote from 2017’s budget fiasco from Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, can fit this year’s budget process late reveal: “I don’t think any of us know what’s truly in this, and I am deeply unsettled.”
Republicans who bemoaned this year’s last-minute budget unveiling — “The lack of transparency is insulting to the citizens,” state Republican Chairman Caleb Heimlich told reporters — might want to recall how in 2013 and 2015, similar shrouding of details by Republicans and Democrats were common and, both times, budget agreements weren’t achieved until the end of June.
So, limiting debate — and the public’s right to weigh in — has become bipartisan, if bad government. Keeping the citizenry informed is one reason why it is crucial that legislators not be allowed to exempt themselves from the Public Records Act, an open-government law with which virtually every other elected official must comply. Under the act, documents relating to deliberation in caucuses, and emails sent and received between stakeholders as well as constituents, must be made public to show how lawmakers reach policy decisions.
It’s part of the culture in Olympia to keep a tight lid on the Capitol dome — before springing details up in jack-in-the-box fashion.
Will it ever change? Let’s just say you shouldn’t lose any sleep waiting for it.