Republicans in the state Legislature are aiming to have a special legislative session start around mid-June in order to address statewide revenue shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as impacts to small businesses.
During a remote press conference call Thursday, state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, alongside others, spoke to the media about a Republican effort to begin a special session. Braun said the purpose of the conference was to “introduce a set of principles and a framework” for a special session, and that ideally the session would happen “sooner, not later,” after the coming revenue forecast for the state in the middle of June but not much further out.
“We need to get it done before July 1,” Braun said, explaining that is when new spending from the recently-enacted supplemental budget goes into effect.
Braun noted that when the Legislature finished their regular session in March, the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent government response imposing restrictions on gatherings and businesses was just beginning. He said that the health crisis continued, but the resulting economic crisis and resultant budget crisis for the state requires action outside of the public health sphere.
“This is a plan that acknowledges that it’s time for the Legislature to be in session and to take action to respond to these (crises),” Braun said.
He said by focusing a special session on spending cuts now, it would result in fewer impacts to Washingtonians down the line when the reality of the economic situation unfolds after COVID-19.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said there are three crises currently: the public health one, which he said “has been addressed,” as well as an economic crisis and upcoming state budget crisis.
“Americans are not here to be ruled by emergency orders,” Wilcox said.
He mentioned the need to respect the three-branch form of the state’s government in order to uphold that “the government is going to function over the long run exactly the way it’s designed to operate.”
Sen. Shelley Short, R-Spokane, recalled that during the 2009 recession then-governor Chris Gregoire convened legislators to help make decisions in moving forward.
“I feel like we have an opportunity now, where things have settled down a bit, to take an opportunity to do the same thing,” Short said.
“Washingtonians have continued to sacrifice to this day, and will continue to do so, and it’s time now for the Legislature to start making sacrifices as well and get to work, and do our part,” Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said.
Braun said Senate staff had been strategizing about how to do a remote session, which he said appeared possible but would require “a few” rule changes and some legislative leaders present.
“Most folks could be remote,” Braun said, adding that the method of voting still had to be figured out.
“We think it’s entirely doable, and we can do it safely” Braun said.
“I think that Washingtonians want to see a functioning government, and to do that we need to make it as close to a normally-functioning government as we can and still be safe,” Wilcox said. He noted other states have used teleconferencing software like Zoom to conduct sessions, adding that the idea of finding a larger venue for proceedings was another idea.
“I want the public to be able to watch this, so that they’re convinced that we’re functioning the way that we should,” Wilcox said.
Braun said that legislators pushing for a new session hadn’t had as much dialogue with Inslee as they would like, “and I think the public would expect,” he said, adding that during those chances allowed he felt legislators were clear in how they should have a role in budgeting.
“I’d like to think this could be helpful to the governor, that he doesn’t have to shoulder this by himself” Braun said.
The move for a legislative session was in part due to the branch of government’s ability to enact laws that other branches could not.
“We want to do things that the governor may not even be empowered to do,” Wilcox said, specifically for small, non-essential businesses in particular “to have a lifeline” through the economic strife, he said.
Regarding willingness to reconvene in a Legislature dominated by Democrats, Wilcox referenced a recent report that “all four corners” of state government had “conceded that there is likely to be a special session.”
“(It is) a matter of timing, I think,” Wilcox said.
Braun later added he hoped and felt Inslee would ultimately call a special session given that broad legislative support, noting that the Legislature itself could end up calling itself into session if push came to shove.
Braun said a “reasonable approach” would involve 10 to 15 bills passing, with Stokesbary later adding that between $500 million and $1.5 billion would be able to “unwind” from spending not currently in effect.
Braun said the proposal was not focused on ending any of the current restrictions or proclamations from the governor, adding the session would propose using federal stimulus money to keep small businesses in particular afloat, and also on keeping at-risk workers safe.
“We know with certainty that there is going to be a significant reduction in revenue,” Braun said, adding the current outlook had forecasted a $7-billion drop in the remainder of the four-year budget.
“That, in my opinion, is still optimistic,” Braun remarked.