Washington State’s Legislative Process Is Broken

Is there any way to fix it?

OLYMPIA — Washington voters amended the state Constitution in 1979 in hopes of bringing discipline to a legislating process run amok.

Sixty percent of them passed Senate Joint Resolution 110 to establish a new requirement for annual legislative sessions of up to 105 consecutive days in odd-numbered years—when budgets are written—and 60 days in even-numbered ones. And it set a new limit of 30 days for any special legislative session.

By their action, voters ditched the Constitution’s original language directing lawmakers to gather for 60-day sessions only in odd-numbered years. As for special sessions, the state’s founders didn’t pen any conditions on their length.

At that point, the experience of nearly 90 years as a state had shown 60 days to rarely be enough time for lawmakers to get their work done, inevitably leading to lengthy extra sessions. Voters recalled 1977, during which lawmakers followed up their two months of regular session with a 104-day overtime.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment vowed in the voters pamphlet it would “force the Legislature to prepare the state budget and enact necessary laws within a fixed period of time each year.” They also claimed it would prevent “marathon” sessions, improve the quality of legislation and “provide for the orderly and systematic analysis of legislation.”

Thirty-eight years later, with the 2017 Legislature nearing the end of a second largely unproductive week of a second special session, the process of legislating looks out of control, again.

Discipline is lacking in regular sessions. Leaders of the majority parties in the House and Senate seem unwilling, or maybe unable, to enforce rules intended to deal with legislation in an orderly fashion, including the budget.

Every session contains deadlines, or cut-off days, by which bills must be acted upon or they die. But lawmakers largely ignore them and this year is no exception.

The last cut-off in this year’s regular session came April 12, the 94th day. That’s when any policy bill needed to have cleared both chambers in some form or else it was toast. The idea was to clear the decks for lawmakers to focus on passing a budget and other bills considered Necessary to Implement the Budget, or NTIB in Olympiaspeak.

It was all supposed to happen by April 23, the 105th day. It didn’t, hence the overtimes.

Compounding the challenge is that these days nothing seems to die. Every bill with a constituency—which is pretty much every bill given the army of lobbyists and special interests deployed in the Capitol—is considered either NTIB or its political sibling, NTPB, which stands for Necessary to Pass the Budget. These are bills a lawmaker wants considered before they’ll commit to voting on a budget.

This year, for example, different groups of lawmakers are insisting action be taken to ease the pain of rising Sound Transit car tabs and to deal with restrictions on water rights imposed by the Supreme Court before they’ll commit to voting on a budget or school funding agreement. Their desires are not directly prolonging the process by themselves but they will need to be satisfied at some point.

This looks like the kind of situation voters expressly wanted to prevent when they acted in 1979. Is another reset needed or is Washington destined for legislative marathons every other year?

One idea—by no means a new one—is to keep sessions at 105 days but not count the days consecutively as required. Leave out weekends since lawmakers are rarely at their office working anyway.

Applying this scenario in 2017 would have meant the final cut-off fell on May 18, presumably enough time to resolve those sticky policy matters. The last day of regular session would be this Friday .

Certainly this would extend the length of sessions on the calendar and carry increased costs.

Engaging lawmakers in legislating for a longer period of time might improve the quality and productiveness of their conversations, and the dynamics of a process that looks to be running amok, again.

jcornfield@heraldnet.com

A version of this story originally ran in the Everett Herald.

More in News & Comment

Between Seattle’s $15 minimum wage and the new no-poach cause agreement, Washington has been leading the nation in advancing fast food workers’ rights. Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr
Washington AG’s Deal Grants Mobility to Fast Food Workers Nationwide

Seven fast food chains have agreed to end no-poaching policies that economists say cause wage stagnation.

The Carlton Complex wildfire burned in north-central Washington state in 2014. Photo by Jason Kriess/Wikimedia Commons
King County Burn Ban Starts This Weekend

Other counties across the state have already enacted similar restrictions.

Numerous complaints against King County Sheriff’s deputies for issues like excessive force and improper search and seizure weren’t investigated due to internal misclassification, a new report says. Photo by Oran Viriyincy/Flickr
Report Finds Complaints Against King County Sheriff’s Deputies Weren’t Investigated

An outside review says that allegations of excessive force and racially-biased policing weren’t pursued.

Last spring, Sarah Smith (second from left) travelled to Tennessee to meet with other Brand New Congress candidates including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (right). Photo courtesy Brand New Congress
Can Sarah Smith Be Seattle’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

The 30-year-old democratic socialist is challenging a long-serving incumbent in Washington’s 9th Congressional District.

Dianne Laurine (left) and Shaun Bickley (right), Commissioners for the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities, say that the city didn’t consult with the disabled community prior to passing the straw ban. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Straw Ban Leaves Disabled Community Feeling High and Dry

Although the city says that disabled people are exempted from the ban, the impacted community says that businesses haven’t gotten the message loud and clear.

Washington Residents Seek Greater Governmental Transparency

Lawsuits and a national campaign show that Washingtonians are dissatisfied with the status quo.

The Deferred Dreams of Working Women on H-4 Visas

Thousands of Indian women throughout the country could once again be barred from employment.

Most Read