Smarter Government Report — March 9, 2012

Greetings Spokane,

The 2012 regular session of the Legislature ended last night without an agreement on the state budget.

After losing more than a month to a focus on contentious social issues, lawmakers finally turned their full attention to the budget these past two weeks. However, the Legislature was unable to come to an agreement on a sustainable fix to the state’s budget challenge. The governor has already called a “special session” – again.

I’m disappointed, but hopeful. Disappointed that this will be the fifth special session in the past two years – proof once again that the state has a serious structural budget problem; hopeful because we have a real opportunity to make progress.

Senator Baumgartner (Spokane) analyzing budget data with
Sen. Joe Zarelli (Senate Republican budget leader) and Senator Steve Litzow.


As you have probably heard, a week ago today, an astonishing thing happened in the Senate. All 22 Republican members, along with three reform-minded Democrats, were able to form a philosophical majority and pass a bipartisan budget that is both sustainable and does not rely on one-time funds and gimmicks.

Yesterday afternoon, with a handful of hours to go in the regular session, Democrats in the House took the Senate budget, rewrote it and sent it back to us for consideration – a sort of legislative “Hail Mary” pass that no one took seriously, considering the timing.

There’s a lot of work still left to do before we can reach agreement on a final budget. However, if this coalition can hang strong in negotiations in the coming weeks of the special session, our state will see progress.

One real bright spot of the week is that I once again was able to host a visit from the Ferris High School Leadership class here to the Capital.  What an outstanding group of young people and what a committed teacher they have.  Watch the video to see more and if you know a school or community group who would like to come on a similar visit, please be in touch with my office.

As always, it is an honor and a privilege to serve you in Olympia.

We’ve got work to do,

Senator Michael Baumgartner 6th District




Senate transportation leaders release supplemental budget plan

Senate transportation leaders released a bipartisan supplemental transportation proposal last week. The budget focuses on highway maintenance, preservation and safety improvement projects, ferry operations and seed money for future construction projects. It would also create or sustain more an estimated 43,000 jobs for the remainder of the 2011-13 biennium. In addition, the budget provides funding to restore the Washington State Patrol’s auto theft program and additional funding is also provided to support strategic investments in freight mobility. The plan would cut administrative positions at the state Department of Transportation by 5 to 7 percent by the end of the current biennium and eliminate project-report redundancies, for a savings of $8.4 million per biennium starting in 2015-17.



Bipartisan coalition supports reform budget in the Senate

Last Friday, a bipartisan group of senators passed a sustainable spending plan that provides a more responsible starting point for negotiations with the House on a final budget. This was accomplished by using a well-known procedural rule.

This move was set in motion when Senate Democrat leaders rolled out their plan for closing the state’s $1.1 billion budget gap. Knowing the majority of Washington voters still oppose any tax increases, Democrat budget-writers employed accounting gimmicks to push spending commitments into the next budget cycle. This made the budget-writing easier but also guaranteed the next Legislature would face yet another billion-dollar (or greater) deficit.

Within hours the Democrat plan was before the Senate budget committee for a public hearing. However, committee leaders skipped bringing it to a vote two days later. That signaled to me and others that their plan was in deep trouble, with even some Democrats openly saying they wouldn’t back such an irresponsible proposal.

This presented us with a serious problem. In order to begin serious negotiations with the House, the Senate had to pass a budget of its own.

In our state Senate the majority is typically defined as the party holding 25 or more of the 49 seats. Whichever party gains the most seats wields an immense amount of power to decide agendas, appoint chairmanships, schedule hearings and permit floor votes. However, and fortunately, there is a safety valve for when the majority party ceases to represent the majority of the citizenry. Just as Washington voters have the power of initiative and referendum to override their elected representatives, Senate rules allow a majority of senators to override majority-party leaders and decide which bills receive a vote, and when.

Not all the Democrats who opposed their leaders’ budget would say so publicly, or stand with Republicans to break the logjam and offer a sustainable budget. However, three brave senators were, and that was enough. When Senators Jim Kastama, Tim Sheldon, and Rodney Tom and all 22 Senate Republicans pooled their votes Friday afternoon they created a philosophical majority of senators, able to rule on the most important issue before the Legislature this session: balancing the budget without reliance on gimmicks.

Having broken the partisan blockade, this majority of senators brought the governor’s budget bill and three critical policy-reform bills to the floor of the state Senate.

The debate began at 3:30 p.m. on Friday and continued through the night until after 2 a.m. on Saturday morning. The goal was clear – pass a budget that could gain the support of a majority of members of the Senate, and one that is capable of breaking the cycle of overspending that results in annual deficits. The budget that passed the Senate is built on three principles:

  • Do not spend more money than revenues available (determine the “size of the box” and stay within it);
  • Do not push current payments out into next biennium – something that creates a built-in future deficit; and
  • Leave a reasonable ending-fund reserve.

The important thing for every legislator to remember when solving this contentious budget problem is that we are all in this together and that the people of Washington don’t want a Republican budget or a Democrat budget, they just want solutions and a budget that works.  Clearly, we have work to do!