Might There Be A Special Session Of The Washington Legislature? Don’t Bet On It, Or Against It

The Washington Capitol building in Olympia with flowers in front
Washington lawmakers are not ruling out a possible special session in June to begin to address the growing budget crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. CREDIT: Tom Banse/N3

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As Washington Gov. Jay Inslee exerts his emergency powers to battle COVID-19, behind the scenes legislative leaders are exploring the idea of a special session of the Legislature, perhaps as early as next month. 

“We are very much deeply in the weeds on trying to figure that out and I think in the next week or two we should have some more clarity,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat.

Like all states, Washington is facing a precipitous drop in revenues as a result of the shuttering of much of the economy due to COVID-19. Because Washington has healthy reserves, the state doesn’t face an imminent budget shortfall at the end of the current fiscal year, which is June 30.

However, the longer term state budget picture is bleak. A preliminary revenue forecast issued earlier this month projected a $7 billion drop in state tax collections over the next three years. The current, two-year state budget is approximately $53 billion. An official quarterly revenue forecast is scheduled for release on June 17. 

“The June revenue forecast is going to create an eye opening experience that’s like being dumped in ice water,” predicted Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat from Tacoma.

One of the arguments for convening a June special session is that lawmakers could begin the process of slowing state spending before the new fiscal year begins and new spending bills take effect.

“The earlier you make reductions, potentially the smaller they can be because they accumulate over time,” Jinkins said.

“Act Sooner Rather Than Later”

This is also an argument some Republicans are making.

“I am convinced now that we need to act sooner rather than later,” said state Sen. John Braun, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, in an interview this week on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.

Besides spending cuts, Braun – who supports holding a special session in June — said lawmakers should have a role in deciding how $1.87 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds are distributed. He’s also interested in directing more resources to long-term care facilities, which have been hard hit by the coronavirus.

Majority Democrats have their own possible agenda items for a special session. That list includes aid to small businesses and, potentially, codifying some of Inslee’s emergency proclamations, which have to be renewed every 30 days if they suspend portions of state law.

But Democrats are not yet convinced that an earlier special session is the best course of action – especially since there’s not an emergency need to balance this year’s budget.

“There’s an argument for moving quickly in June, but there’s an equal argument for waiting,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, the Democratic chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

Rolfes, who also spoke on “Inside Olympia,” said the argument for waiting includes the fact the state doesn’t yet know what additional federal stimulus and recovery money Congress might appropriate in the coming months.

“So there’s a discussion right now about whether we come in June and do some urgent, emergency just get-the-job-done stuff, or whether we wait more until August, September when we have all the facts and all the information,” Rolfes said.

Rolfes said she’s not in one camp or the other. But she did caution that drafting bills and getting everything ready for a June special session would represent “a pretty fast time frame,” particularly given that many legislative staffers are working from home.

Jinkins, the speaker of the House, indicated that she supports the idea of a June special session, but added the agenda would need to be “well worked” in advance. Billig, the Senate leader, echoed that sentiment.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact it’s an election year with all House members and about half of state senators up for re-election, along with Inslee who is seeking a rare third term. Besides the heightened political climate, anytime the Legislature is in session, lawmakers are prohibited from raising campaign funds.

Ultimately, the decision to reconvene lawmakers rests with Inslee who has the power to call the Legislature back into special session. In an interview Wednesday, Inslee’s legislative director, Drew Shirk, said they’re still gathering much of the information that would inform a decision about whether to call a special session

“[It] really comes down to how much savings can you get in a timely way that would make a big differe