As lawmakers work overtime in Olympia to finalize a new two-year spending plan, some want to begin budget negotiations earlier in the future to help prevent special sessions like this one.
Senate budget writer Andy Hill, R-Redmond, proposed moving the state’s revenue forecasts in odd-numbered years up by one month – from March to February – so that budget talks can begin a month sooner. Both House and Senate budget writers rely on numbers from the revenue forecast to craft their spending proposals.
“One of the problems is when you’re writing the budget, everyone waits around to get that revenue forecast in March,” said Hill, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “By the time negotiation starts, you’re well into April. There’s no reason we can’t put that up by a month and start passing that stuff sooner.”
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said there’s widespread support for Hill’s idea, which was introduced about two weeks before the Legislature’s 105-day session ended April 28. Lawmakers couldn’t agree on a budget by then and reconvened May 13 for a 30-day special session.
“A lot of us just said, ‘Why didn’t we think of that before?’” Tom said. “We’ve had several special sessions in these long sessions, and we wait around for the revenue forecast. To have that a month earlier would definitely help us get out of town.”
State revenue forecaster Stephen Lerch said in a recent interview that he thinks an earlier forecast is workable. He noted the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, of which he is executive director, already does forecasts in February for the 60-day sessions that occur in even-numbered years.
“We’re able to do an early and credible forecast in February for short sessions. There’s no reason we can’t do that“ for long sessions, said Lerch.
“One month of data is rarely enough to change the forecast,” Lerch added. “If we said we are waiting for more and better data, we’d never do a forecast.”
The Senate already approved Hill’s plan, but the House didn’t schedule it for a hearing before the regular session adjourned. Hill said that if the Legislature doesn’t approve the idea before its 30-day special session ends in June, the proposal will be a priority for him next year.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the idea may have merit. But he said it isn’t urgent that they pass a bill this year.
He pointed out the legislation offers no help this year or in 2014 when lawmakers are to meet for a short, 60-day session and will be getting a February forecast anyway.
“We’re certainly willing to look at that legislation, but there is no rush to get that done, because, again, it would not take place until early (2015),” Sullivan said.
This year’s budget talks have dragged on long enough that any deal is likely to come together in June at the earliest. That bumps up against the next biennium, which starts July 1 – and it means lawmakers could find themselves still haggling over taxes when the next revenue forecast comes out June 19.
Recent state revenue collections have been running ahead of the March forecast by more than $80 million, some of that due to early payment of property taxes. But a firming job base could bump up the June forecast for revenue collections over the next two biennia.
Sullivan said there is no benefit to waiting until that forecast.
“No one expects that there’s going to be any magical amount of money that shows up in the June revenue forecast,” Sullivan said. “At the same time the revenue forecast takes place, we have the new caseload forecast. We’re likely to see increasing caseloads. So at best it could be a wash.”
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