OLYMPIA — The Legislature should meet in special session this month to begin cutting the state budget to adjust for the loss of revenue brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate's top Republican said Wednesday.
In an interview conducted as part of a Northwest Passages virtual forum, Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the state should begin making budget decisions before July 1, the start of the new fiscal year and a starting point for some new programs approved before the virus led to a statewide stay-home order, the closure of many businesses and the worst unemployment since at least the Great Depression.
"Early action is critical," Schoesler said. "One dollar in smart savings in June is equal to $1.50 in January, so why would we wait?"
After the state economic and revenue forecast on June 17 would be the appropriate time for a special session, he said. "It's not if we have a large deficit. It's how large the large deficit is."
Among the savings the state should consider are canceling raises for state employees and teachers that were negotiated before the economic downturn, he said.
The Legislature also should have input on spending some $2 billion the state will get in federal money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, Schoesler said.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who can call the Legislature back for a 30-day special session, has said the state will probably need such a session at some point this year but has not determined when that would be.
Asked during a Wednesday afternoon news conference about the prospect of bringing lawmakers back in June, Inslee said it's too early to make that call.
"There's no plan that anyone has espoused that has enough votes to pass right now," he said. Discussions are happening, but they haven't reached any conclusions.
While he didn't specifically address the prospect of canceling scheduled raises, Inslee said "every option is on the table right now." But like Schoesler, he pointed to the upcoming economic forecast in the middle of the month.
"We will know more in a few weeks," he said.
Under state law, the Legislature could call itself back into session if the governor doesn't through a two-thirds vote of both chambers. But that's never been done before and Schoesler called that option "a long shot."
With the Legislature adjourned, he's one of four legislative leaders -- along with Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins and House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox -- who must approve the extension of emergency orders issued by the governor after they've been in place for 30 days. He said the extension requests are discussed with the Senate Republican Caucus before he supports or opposes them.
Most of them have been approved, although a few have been denied. The Legislature should consider revising that system, however, to look at stronger oversight of a governor's emergency powers regardless of which party is in control.
"I would ask my colleagues across the aisle, 'Would you like this level of power if it was Gov. Rossi?' " said Schoesler, referring to the state senator who narrowly lost the 2004 election to Christine Gregoire and was the last Republican to come close to winning the office in the last four decades. "Calling us in (to an automatic special session) might not be necessary, but giving us an expanded role in what is an emergency or what is the proclamation for."
The statute was first written to address the aftermath of a nuclear attack, and has been used after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and when massive wildfires burned large areas of the state. It was most recently updated to be able to respond to the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a major geological fault line off the Washington Coast.
"It's probably time to take a look at it," Schoesler said.