Lessons from Washington: How to Pass a Budget

Monday March 5th, 2012   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 8:37am PST   •  
Flag Seal of the State of Washington

Washington State Flag

There’s a great story that broke over the past weekend from the floor of the senate in Washington state that certain Senators in Washington D.C. can afford to learn: how to pass a budget!

To set the stage, here are the remarkable similarities between the between the two legislative bodies:

  • Both legislative bodies are controlled by members the majority Democratic Party.
  • The size of the Democratic Party’s effective majority in each is similar—in Washington state, the Democrats have a 5 seat majority in the state senate, while in Washington D.C., the Democrates have a 6 seat majority.
  • The leaders of the majority party have acted to block out the participation of members of the minority Republican Party in drafting an annual budget.

On that last point, in Washington state, the minority Republicans were being blocked from drafting any part of the state’s annual budget by the extremely partisan leadership of the Democratic Party majority. In Washington D.C., the extremely partisan leadership of the majority Democratic Party have refused to produce any budget since April 29, 2009. At this writing, the U.S. Senate has failed to produce a budget for almost three years – it has been now been 2 years and 311 days, or just 1,041 days since the last time the Senate took any action covering a budget that would affect all of the spending of the U.S. government.

Now for the differences:

  • In Washington state, a number of moderates within the majority party were willing to break with the extremely partisan leadership of the majority to pursue a bipartisan budget solution that would substantively deal with the state’s ongoing fiscal problems.

Erik Smith of the Washington State Wire describes what a difference that made:

OLYMPIA, March 2. � A decision by Senate Democratic leaders to shut minority Republicans and moderate members of their own party out of the budget-writing process ended in an epic backfire Friday night, as three moderates bolted and threw control of the chamber to the GOP.

Democrats fired back with delaying tactics that initially threatened to keep the Senate in session all night, but it appeared clear that Republicans had the upper hand and would be able to pass a GOP-written budget in the Legislature�s upper chamber. Democrats ultimately acknowledged defeat, and Senate continued to meet late Friday night to pass the bill.

The move by Democratic Sens. Jim Kastama, Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom to join with Republicans in a procedural motion was an historic vote on a scale with the Legislature�s decision last month to permit gay marriage in the state of Washington. The last time anything like it happened was 1987.

Democrats cried foul; the Senate erupted in disarray, and crowds thronged the galleries and the wings to witness the sort of rout that might take place once in a legislative career. Angry stares from members on the floor were directed at the three who dared to break ranks.

But Kastama, who is running for secretary of state this year, said he didn�t care whether he would face political repercussions.

�I�m not thinking about that right now,� he said during a break in the action. �I really am not. I think this is the best move for our state, which is to put forward a budget that is balanced, that doesn�t kick the can down the road.�

So, what was wrong with the partisan budget that was being pursued by the Washington State Senate’s majority party? Smith continues:

Despite their slim 27-22 majority in the Senate, Senate Democratic leaders chose this year to write a budget without Republican input, ignoring critics, unlike their bipartisan effort last year that brought both sides to the table.

The result was a budget that left moderates and Republicans cold. It didn�t solve this year�s billion-dollar budget shortfall with the big cuts that would have brought spending into line with tax revenue. And it actually made the state�s long-term problems worse. Majority Democrats in the House and Senate are proposing that the state shift hundreds of millions of dollars in current expenses to the 2013-15 budget, when the state already expects to face a shortfall of between $1 billion and $2 billion.

Something had to give � and what gave was party discipline.

�I am not lending my vote to any party,� said state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Hoodsport. �I am representing the people of my district, and I believe they want a fiscally responsible budget, one that balances revenues with expenditures.�

What was the alternative being proposed by the Republicans who were being shut out of the budget process in Washington state?

As debate progressed into the night Friday, the 22 Republicans and three Democrats were poised to pass a budget written by Senate Republican budget chief Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. The budget makes $722 million in cuts, leaves a half-billion-dollar reserve, and it avoids entirely the shift in expenses to the next budget.

It assumes changes in state-employee pension programs that will save the state $133 million in the short term and $2.3 billion over the long haul. Most education spending is spared. The budget preserves the Basic Health Plan, the state�s subsidized health insurance program for the working poor, but it eliminates the Disability Lifeline, the state�s medical assistance program for unemployable adults.

In the final outcome in Washington state, each of the alternative bills related to the extremely partisan budget being pushed by the leadership of the majority Democratic Party in the state’s senate passed by votes of 25 to 24 early in the morning of March 3, 2012, as three members of the state senate’s majority party put their partisanship aside to deal with the major fiscal problems being faced by the state.

If that’s not a lesson that can be learned and ought to be applied in the “other” Washington, what is?


Smith, Erik. “Backfire! – Senate Democrats’ Effort to Pass a Partisan Budget Results in Takeover From the Middle“. Washington State Wire. 3 March 2012.

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March 2012