Budget battle: a difficult process | Legislature in review

Kent Reporter

By Dennis Box

The doors of the 2015 legislative session opened Jan. 12, and 176 days later the battle-scarred lawmakers left Olympia – sine die.

The budget gymnastics beat the former high-water mark of 163 days set in 2001 by 13. In a few years the session may be little more than a foggy question on some high school senior's history exam, or background for a reporter's story about another legislative battle royal, but this year it left many lawmakers staggered like punch-drunk pugilists in the 15th round.

For the record, the lawmaker met for the initial biennial budget session of 105 days. The work spilled over into three special sessions with the end coming on a Friday – July 10.

The operating budget, which created most of the trouble in River City, was settled in principle after 163 days. The next 13 were spent finishing the transportation budget and wrestling for the votes to delay by four years implementation of Initiative 1351, the class size initiative. Suspending the initiative took a two-thirds majority in both chambers. The math to balance the operating budget was based on suspending the initiative, which saved $2 billion.

Inside the room

A week after the close of the session, 47th District Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, discussed the session and his role in the budget battle.

Fain said the lead players on the Senate side who crafted the budget were Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond from the 45th, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, 20th and himself. Fain said his role was generally in the back office offering "quality control" and a "reality check."

He said the process began as bipartisan but the minority party representatives left about "half way through" when there were demands to not compromise.

Fain credited Hill and Democratic leader Sen. Jim Hargrove, Hoquiam, with keeping communication lines open so the process could move ahead.

"They continued to bounce ideas off each other," Fain said. "Andy Hill is the best public servant we have."

Fain said he expected there would be a special session this year.

"It's tough in 105 days when there is this much to get done," he said. "(But) I was surprised it came to the edge of the diving board. ... Yes, it was frustrating, but it is supposed to be. There are seven million wildly different opinions distilled into action. ... There are thousands of personal issues. It was never designed to be an easy job. Dictatorships are easy, democracies are not."

For budget writers, the job comes down to priorities and choices according to the senator.

"There is a lot of diversity (in the Legislature) that is not easily seen," Fain said. "It ranges from individuals who are really connected to social conservative values to those who are hard line on taxes to those who are not social conservatives but fiscal conservatives. There is every match you can imagine. We do go at it from our personal perspective. Diversity can be difficult. It's part of the frustration, and it is part of the joy of the job."

Operating budget

The operating budget is typically a struggle in Olympia, but this year it became a MMA cage fight when the state Supreme Court found the state of Washington in contempt for not complying with the Court's Jan. 5, 2012 McCleary v. Washington order, which directed the Legislature to fulfill its funding obligation as stated in Article IX of the state Constitution.

"The operating budget is the most difficult because it has to happen," Fain said. "There are no options. You have to have an operating budget. A transportation budget is not constitutionally necessary."

Fain said the "partisan side" of him feels the problems were created by the "hard lines drawn in the sand that made it hard to come off of, (like) massive tax increases. Our side was more flexible and not dug in."

The senator said no budget is perfect and "the goal is not perfection. If it were, then July would be early (to adjourn)."

Although the budget process was long and difficult, Fain noted Washington is the first state in the nation to reduce college tuition. He added the investment in education was the largest in decades.

Fain, who is an attorney, did not speculate on how the Supreme Court would rule on the contempt ruling. Although the Legislature invested $1.3 billion in K-12 education with pay hikes for teachers and money for all-day kindergarten, Fain said he is frustrated the legislative body has been unable to resolve the inequities in funding basic education between districts.

"The state is now paying for what the state is supposed to pay for, (including) books, buses, all-day kindergarten," Fain said.

According to Fain, the next step is the heart of McCleary, which is addressing the funding inequities between districts. Fain said there is a bipartisan plan in the Senate that did not make it through the hoops this year.

Fain is a member of the Nine Committee working with the state Office of the Attorney General to write a response to the court.

More will be reported on this issue when the Supreme Court considers the case again.

Doing the job right

Writing a $38 billion state operating budget has never been listed as one of the top three fun things to do on a vacation.

From the first days of the session when Gov. Jay Inslee released the executive branch budget, to the final signatures, the bill works its way through countless hours of who wants what, for whom, why and where is the money.

Fain said the core of building a budget and the hard part of the job is prioritizing. According to the senator, the governor is supposed to provide a Book One or basic budget, but Inslee sent in a Book Two "with additional revenue he wanted. The value of prioritizing a budget is saying, "I can't afford everything. What is the most important?"

Fain said the $800 million in unexpected revenue that came in May as the state coffers rebounded from the recession "solved a lot of problems."

In the end the budget has to come to the chamber floor for a vote and be signed by the person living in the mansion.

"I would say if you do the job right, you recognize it is a team sport," Fain said. "You need to grow your team bigger and party preference has less to do with it than who is on your team."