Prepping for a Government Shutdown Is the New Normal in Olympia

For the third straight budget year, things are coming down to the wire.

The process of shutting down state government is under way, again.

At the direction of Gov. Jay Inslee, agency leaders are updating their contingency plans for furloughing workers, suspending contracts and locking up if a new state budget is not in place when the fiscal year begins July 1.

“While we consider it unlikely these plans will need to be implemented, it is again prudent to update this information in the event of a worst-case scenario” wrote David Schumacher, Inslee’s budget director, in an April 25 letter to agency directors, university presidents and statewide elected officials.

It should be no sweat. This is the third time in five years agency chiefs received such a letter. For them, most of the heavy lifting occurred four years ago when they, along with Inslee, first rode this political merry-go-round.

Back in June 2013 they figured out which public services would be idled and which would not because federal law or the state constitution mandate they be provided.

For example, public universities and community colleges would remain open, as would prisons and state hospitals. But state parks would close, some convicted sex offenders wouldn’t be watched as closely when released and state-supported childcare wouldn’t be provided for some children in low-income families.

At that time, agencies sent temporary layoff notices to thousands of state employees as required by collective bargaining agreements. And private contractors got letters warning they might not get paid if there was no budget.

That year lawmakers reached a deal June 27, passed the budget June 28 and the governor signed it June 30.

In 2015, they did it all over again then watched as Inslee signed a new budget at 11:39 p.m. June 30.

It’s unclear how many steps they’ll need to repeat in 2017. Right now the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-controlled House are at odds on how much money is needed for the next two years of government operations and where it will come from.

What can be said is Inslee is probably the most experienced chief executive in Washington history on the subject of shutting down state government. If he’s not running for president in 2020, he could earn a hefty salary advising governors on the best ways and means of doing it in their states.

There’s actually never been a government closure in this state, but Washington started a fiscal year without a budget in 1951. Back then, the fiscal year began April 1.

Gov. Booth Gardner had a close call in 1991. Gov. Gary Locke did, too, in 2001. It was so close he issued an executive order on how government would continue to operate in the emergency of having no budget.

Inslee has gone through this process three times which seems to be enough experience to consider it a learned behavior. He can recount the tension enveloping his team as it prepped for a shutdown the first time, amid escalating public concern of the potential disruption to their lives.

“This is uncharted ground,” Inslee told reporters at the time.

Not any more.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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