Why not call a special session of the Legislature? That question has come up several times throughout the past year, usually by Republicans, owing to the impacts of COVID-19 and Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest decisions on how to handle the challenges the virus presents.
Most recently, Inslee’s decisions on restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and fitness centers have started the calls again. Republicans’ first concern is usually business, while Democrats typically want to look after K-12, higher education and those in need.
Businesses, particularly small businesses, fit that category because of the virus. Republicans argue that businesses need help and provide income for the state. They tend to support some form of the trickle-down theory, and if the government would just get out of the way, everyone would be fine — thus, opposition to taxes on businesses.
Some voters bristle at what they see as Inslee’s high-handed ways of fighting the virus and shutting out Republicans from being part of the discussion, and have renewed their call for a special session. In the 40 years I have been going to the capital, I still remember the phrase I heard the first time, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power: “When the Legislature is in town, neither your pocketbook nor your property are safe.”
While meant partially as humor, it is still a thought many people take seriously. Why? Because you never know what will happen when the two different philosophies get together and start looking for a compromise. And elections always figure in the political posturing as every other year is an election year for the House of Representatives.
As an example, Republicans point to Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, who called a special session for early December.
But for Inslee to call a special session would be completely contrary to everything he has said about the best way to fight the virus. It will de difficult enough to hold a “virtual” regular session, let alone try and do it twice, and just a few weeks apart.
From a political point of view, what does Inslee gain by calling a special session and giving the opposition party a megaphone for the grievances he has heard all through the spring, summer and fall while running for re-election?
Also, Inslee has made adjustments to some of his decisions for the hospitality industry, specifically for restaurants. Discontinuing indoor food service has become a cause. But getting groups of people together where they don’t always have their masks is again contrary to Inslee’s reasoning.
And Inslee still has $50 million in federal assistance to dole out to help those businesses through chambers of commerce and city governments.
Special sessions have been called before to deal with a specific topic within a specific time frame of a day or week. Some argue that Inslee could make a deal within those constraints. However, everything relates to the budget in some manner, and the two sides have completely different ideas about how to solve the money challenge.
Several legislative committees continue to meet while looking for common ground, so progress could be made without a special session. Among the ideas Democrats have already floated are different types of taxes such as taxes on inheritances for the most wealthy, while Republican legislators have mentioned relief from business-and-occupation taxes or creating a tax credit.
Members of both parties seem willing to discuss use of the “rainy day fund.” But that may only be “talk” as some legislators will be reluctant to use the rainy day fund when they believe the real problem is the national Congress, which hasn’t followed up with more assistance.
But talk of raiding the rainy day fund is a good defense to avoid the tax issue. Democrats still have control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s office — but Inslee is very aware that the two sides couldn’t even agree on the importance of masks to fight COVID-19, as his Republican opposition for governor followed President Donald Trump’s lead and held many events where masks were optional. That should have been the easy part. But it helps explain why the budget would be very difficult.
The other challenge facing Inslee is that it may not be just the opposition party he has to worry about. There was a notable shift to the left when Speaker of the House Frank Chopp stepped down and was replaced by Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma, who will continue as Speaker during the next session. A few years ago, the “tea party” forced a split in the Republican party with more conservative views, and the same thing is happening to Democrats at the national and state level from the left. Chopp had several impatient representatives who wanted to move farther and faster on some issues. Jinkins became the Speaker and now has to lead the group.
Since voters showed considerable confidence in Inslee’s leadership in the election, there isn’t really much need for Inslee to call a special session without iron-clad agreement in advance from all sides about topics and solutions, along with agreement from Republicans to provide enough votes to ensure bipartisan agreement on any taxes.
There are several safe Republican seats where a tax vote wouldn’t harm the incumbent, and Democrats won’t want to start the 2022 election cycle with partisan split votes. Short of a change by Inslee, South King County will have several newcomers that will be learning how the process works for future leadership and will have three players in the middle of the action: Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-47th District), Rep. Tina Orwall (D-33rd District) and Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33rd District).
At this point, all the demands serve a political purpose of setting up the 2022 elections and keeping the home folks happy, particularly those who own or frequent restaurants, fitness centers and bowling alleys. But a special session is unlikely unless Republicans offer up some votes on taxes. Watch the Legislature closely and remember: you can’t always see what is really happening.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.