Yakima Herald-Republic decries state budget “gimmick,” says legal challenge may have “strong legal argument.”

A strong editorial in the Yakima Herald-Republic criticizes the end-run lawmakers took to get to their budget deal. After acknowledging that the budget provided widely-desired property tax relief and made good on the mandate to increase teacher salaries, the editorial got to the crux:

Problem: Democrats did so with a budgetary gimmick that diverted money that should have gone into the constitutionally protected Budget Stabilization Account, better known as the rainy-day fund, and put it into teacher salaries. They did so with no hearings in the Senate and one hearing — on the session’s final day — in the House. They did so despite strenuous objections from the office of State Treasurer Duane Davidson, and they did so in the Senate on a party-line 25-23 vote, shy of the 60 percent supermajority needed to tap the rainy-day fund. It passed the House 59-39, just above the 60 percent threshold.

Further, the issue may not be resolved yet. 

Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 6614 into law on Tuesday. The next day, initiative sponsor Tim Eyman came forward not with an initiative but a lawsuit, claiming the Legislature violated the state constitution by approving it without a supermajority. The suit also claims the Legislature’s move compromises the State Treasurer’s Office ability to administer the rainy-day fund as directed by the state constitution. Here’s an unfortunate irony: Davidson, who opposed SB 6614 but by law has to carry it out, is a defendant in the suit.

The lawsuit appears to have a strong legal argument regarding the supermajority. It has a strong fiscal argument regarding the rainy-day fund, which is set up to help the state ride through the next tough times that will come eventually.

Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center has more on the lawsuit. He concludes,

There will be major consequences for the state no matter the outcome of this budget gimmick lawsuit. Should it succeed, the Legislature will be forced to re-balance the large budget increase it just adopted. If it fails, the blueprint will be set for future lawmakers to raid the protected status of the BSA without a supermajority vote.

We wrote about the issue as the maneuver was making its rapid progress through the Legislature. In its budget wrap-up, the Washington Research Council wrote of the move,

While the Legislature has spent nearly all the extraordinary revenue growth the state has experienced since 2013–15 (WRC 2018), it has done so by following the rules established in the constitution. Not so this year. As the News Tribune reports,

[Ways and Means chair Christine] Rolfes told the two news outlets on Tuesday the plan is necessary becausethe GOP “indicated” they didn’t sup-port an earlier proposal to pay for the property tax cuts with money from the rainy day fund.

“We can give that money back directly to the people before it goes to the rainy day fund,” Rolfes said.

The strategy “allows it to be a simple majority vote so we don’t have to fight about it,” she said. (Orenstein 2018)

By avoiding that “fight,” this year’s redirection of funds establishes a precedent that seriously weakens the constitutional provisions.

We’ll be interested in what the courts say.