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Special session? No (yawn), it’s a routine – and so are the costs

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on May 2, 2013 at 5:29 pm with No Comments »
May 2, 2013 5:58 pm
Capitol Dome / Olympian file photo by Steve Bloom
Capitol Dome / Olympian file photo by Steve Bloom

There are a few things to keep in mind when state lawmakers return to special session on May 13.

FIRST: The cost is likely to be small in the grand scheme of legislative spending. Costs ran less than $300,000 for two special sessions that lasted a total of 31 days last year, which is less than one one-thousandth of a percent of the state operating budget. And it’s less than half of what the House expects to spend for a new voting-machine and scoreboard installed in its chambers this year.

Things could get a bit more costly if all 147 lawmakers are in town for a full 30 days – or if the first special session turns into a second session.

SECOND: These overtime periods are called special sessions – or extraordinary sessions. Yet no one who works in the Legislature thinks they are the least bit special.

Also, overtime periods have been needed in more than two-thirds of the years since 1981. That is the year 105-day regular sessions became the norm in odd-numbered years.

As we reported in April last year, special sessions typically take place when there is a fiscal downturn or budget crisis or when the government is divided. This year, like in 2011-12, both factors are at play with Republicans holding sway in the Senate and Democrats firmly controlling the House.

Some background:

 Since 1981, there have been 40 special sessions and only 10 years where no extra session was called at all.

 Page 1 of “Members of the Legislature – 1889-2011” has a chart showing the history of sessions back to statehood.

 In the 1980s, there were 15 extra sessions and only one year (1980) where work got done on time.

 In the 1990s, there were 10 special sessions and three years when work got done on time (1992, 1996 and 1998 – all supplemental sessions when only fine-tuning was required on the two-year budget). Republicans held both chambers in one of those years.

 Since 2000 there have been 15 special sessions and six separate years when no extra session was needed (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009 – all but one of which had Democratic majorities in both chambers).

 The session in 2004 was one of the rare years when lawmakers got done in spite of divided government and a fiscal challenge, although it was a supplemental budget year. That year the Senate was in GOP hands, the House was in Democratic hands and the state was coming out of a recession.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Legislature is going to absorb costs for the overtime period out of existing budgets. “The Senate and House always pay the cost of special sessions out of existing appropriations and offset the cost with savings or, if necessary, additional cuts,” says Brad Hendrickson, deputy secretary of the Senate, who helps administer operations.

In some years, only top leaders and budget writers are brought back during negotiations and that cuts cost. Most session-only staff is laid off once the regular session ends.

The major cost for two special sessions last year was for per diem – the $90 per day expense allotment lawmakers receive on top of the $42,106 base pay given to rank-and-file members (top leaders get $50,146, by the way).

The House and Senate reported that the costs for the 31 days of session were $141,631 for the House and $150,092 for the Senate:

 House costs included $81,168 total ($2,618 average per day) for per diem, $18,760 for members’ mileage reimbursements ($605 per day), $11,904 for district aides’ travel and per diem ($384 per day), and $29,798 for temporary session staffing ($961 per day).

 Senate costs included $80,827 for salary and benefits for staffing, $63,765 for per diem, an estimated $2,500 for travel and an estimated $3,000 for printing.

House Deputy Chief Clerk Bernard Dean said last year’s expenses had included payments for “minimal” staffing. The House added temporary security and parking personnel during the special sessions. Hendrickson said the same was true for the upper chamber.

A few lawmakers flatly decline to take per diem during special sessions.

Many years there are calls to cut state lawmakers’ pay if they go into a special session.

But pay is set by the Washington State Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials – which has frozen lawmakers’ pay since it last went up in 2008.

The commission is meeting in Olympia on May 22 to set pay for the next two years, and once again it is recommending no pay raises for lawmakers in September 2013 or September 2014.

Under the Constitution, the citizens’ commission is not authorized to cut pay.

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