Getting the people’s business done on time

After every experience, good or bad, there are lessons to be learned. I am proud of Washington’s new two-year budget that added $1 billion to K-12 education, did not raise tuition at our state’s colleges and required no new general taxes. However, it was adopted more than two months late and just two days before the previous budget expired, which had some worried about a government shutdown.

Taxpayers, state employees and those who rely on government services have a right to expect better – that Olympia would learn from 2013 and embrace opportunities to improve the process. When the Legislature convenes Monday for its 2014 session I will be offering three proposals that would increase the likelihood of adopting the next state budget on time and begin to restore the public’s trust in state government.

The first would make a structural change. By law, the revenue forecast that informs budget writers about available resources is not unveiled until two-thirds of the way through the session. It typically takes another two weeks before the Senate and House of Representatives release and pass their respective budgets. That leaves little time for negotiating and building consensus, and encourages lawmakers to consider overtime.

A common-sense solution is to get the revenue forecast a month sooner in the odd-numbered years during which budgets are written. The state’s chief economist, who produces the quarterly forecasts, has said he does not believe a one-month change would alter the forecast’s accuracy. This would let budget writers release their proposals one month earlier, allowing more negotiating time.

I introduced this legislation last year. It passed the Senate unanimously but did not receive even a public hearing in the House of Representatives.

My second proposed solution involves the state campaign-finance law that prohibits legislators and statewide elected officials from fundraising leading into and during a legislative session.

This past year highlighted a weakness in the law. Following the regular 2013 session, which ended without the adoption of a new budget, the governor ordered a special session to commence two weeks later. During the break legislators and the governor were free to solicit and receive campaign contributions, despite not having completed our most important task.

This loophole violates the spirit of the laws meant to keep fundraising and lawmaking separate, and eliminate appearances of impropriety and allegations of unethical behavior or favors. How does it look when lawmakers can solicit campaign funds while still deliberating a multi-billion dollar state spending plan?

There is a time for lawmaking and a time for campaigning. My proposal is to extend the fundraising freeze in odd-numbered years so that no lawmaker may accept campaign contributions until a new operating budget has been adopted.

The governor also should not be able to fundraise during the 20 days following a session, which is when he or she is still part of the lawmaking process, deciding whether or not to sign legislation.

The third proposal is a constitutional amendment that would not allow any pay increase for lawmakers to take effect if the Legislature does not pass an operating budget during the regular session. I specify “take effect” because the Legislature does not set its own pay; that job is done by the Citizens’ Salary Commission for Elected Officials.

Washington workers aren’t rewarded for failing to complete their work; it should be no different for elected officials. In the past five years the Legislature has wrapped up its work on schedule just once, and that was five years ago.

The three proposals I will put before my colleagues this year would go a long way toward reversing that trend, and ensuring the people’s business gets completed on time.