Republican state legislators are calling for an emergency special session in Olympia next month to deal with the health and economic fallout of COVID-19.
In a media release issued Thursday afternoon, the party caucus budget leader Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said the Legislature can respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak “in ways the governor can’t.”
“When the Legislature adjourned in mid-March the public-health crisis related to COVID-19 was still emerging. Now there’s an economic crisis and a budget crisis in addition to the ongoing public-health crisis,” Braun said.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, is among those senators eager to return for a special session following the anticipated June 17 revenue forecast, echoing Republican leadership in an interview Thursday. Rivers said Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has kept legislators “on the sideline” of the coronavirus response.
“We have no ability to help him direct those funds to the places that people need it most,” Rivers said.
Inslee, a Democrat, holds the power to call legislators in for a 30-day special session at any time during the year. Legislators can also call themselves into special session by a two-thirds vote from both Senate and House members.
A spokeswoman for Inslee responded to the call from state GOP lawmakers Thursday, though she didn’t say whether the governor would support an emergency June session.
“A variety of aspects must be taken into account before calling a special session, including the technical challenges of convening the Legislature in the midst of a pandemic,” Tara Lee, the governor’s communications director, wrote in an email to The Columbian.
Lee added that the governor’s office has been “engaged with legislative leadership on this and other issues related to the COVID-19 crisis from the very beginning.”
Part of the urgency from state lawmakers stems from an approaching deadline: The current fiscal year expires at the end of June, with a new budget implemented in July.
The state is gearing up for a huge long-term deficit as a result of the virus and associated recession. Economic forecasters are loosely estimating $7 billion in lost revenue through 2023.
“Changes have to be made to the state budget because the state’s rainy day fund isn’t large enough to entirely cover the projected revenue losses caused by the stay-home order,” Braun said. “That means the Legislature must act before budget changes take effect July 1, to pull back new spending and prevent more cuts to the vulnerable down the road.”
Republicans aren’t alone in calling for a special session. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, agreed that the state Legislature needs to return following the release of the budget forecast.
“I love that they called for a special session,” Stonier said of her Republican colleagues. “That’s great. We all want to go into a special session.”
Stonier worries about the potential, however, for a special session to turn into partisan bickering over the state’s plans to reopen.
“We want to wait until we go into a special session until we have good data about the economy and a plan for what’s going to pass,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re going to go, sit there and run up the cost for taxpayers. That’s not going to work.”