How to stop Olympia’s “government shutdown” game

In the last six years, state legislators needed overtime special sessions to complete their budget work five times. Only in 2014 did they finish on time.

It’s not merely a matter of Republican vs. Democrat wrangling over the budget, either. In 2010-12 Democrats controlled both the House and Senate by comfortable margins, yet legislators still needed extra time to reach a budget compromise in each of those three years.

2013 saw the problem taken to a level not seen since 2001, back when the House was tied and Democrats had a scant one-seat advantage in the Senate. Like they did in 2001, legislators fought over the budget right up to the brink of a government shutdown in 2013, and they repeated that melodrama this year.

Isn’t there a better way?
Voters don’t appreciate the brinksmanship of these government shutdown threats. Potential shutdowns are disruptive to state workers and upsetting to people who rely on certain government services. Not to mention, the coy games and threats in Olympia are just irritating to everyone who expects state government to function better than Congress.

So what can we do to reduce the likelihood of legislators arguing until the last possible moment and using shutdown threats to get their way?

Jason Mercier, the government reform director for the Washington Policy Center, talked up three potential tweaks in the Seattle Times that could reduce the threat of government shutdowns:

  • “Early-action base budget at the beginning of the legislative session (Utah does this)”

Under this idea, state budget leaders would agree on “carry-forward” spending levels before the new legislative year begins. Legislators would then vote near the beginning of session on a base budget that uses those spending levels. Then, if budget negotiations break down later in the session, the “base budget” will already be in place and the government can continue functioning while legislators negotiate.

  • “Continuing resolution enactment in the last week of a regular session if no budget is passed (New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Carolina do this)”

Some states use a “continuing resolution” to keep government funded at current levels when legislators are facing a budget deadline. While not as good as simply getting their work done on time, the continuing resolution at least takes away the option of one side using the threat of a government shutdown to get their way. Congress also uses continuing resolutions (far too frequently, unfortunately).

  • “Constitutional amendment authorizing continuing appropriations at current spending levels if there is no budget by the end of the session (Rhode Island and Wisconsin practice this)”

We could also just write the “automatic continuation of spending at current levels” into the state constitution. There’s a high bar for passing a constitutional amendment – it must originate from the Legislature, pass both houses with a 2/3 vote, and be approved by voters on the ballot. That might be tough to pull off, but it would be a tidy solution to the government shutdown threat and wouldn’t require proactive moves by legislators every year.

While most voters and legislators hate taking state government to the edge of shutting down, the fact is that some people see an advantage in keeping this scary option. Not everyone would be thrilled with permanently taking that arrow out of the quiver.

If legislators could come to agreement on one of these options, though, state government would operate more smoothly. And even though these solutions give legislators more time to come to agreement on a budget, the practical result would likely be legislators reaching agreement on a compromise in less time than it takes them now.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.