A preview of the budget process

For the next two months, the Council is going to put nearly all of their usual work aside to focus on writing the city government’s budget for the 2019-2020 biennium. Here’s what’s going to happen between now and November 19th.

The process kicks off at 12:30 this afternoon, when Mayor Jenny Durkan announces her proposed budget in a speech at Fire Station 10, and transmits it to the City Council.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the Council’s Budget Committee will meet both in the mornings and the afternoons. They will hear briefings on the major departmental budgets, with a deep dive on the Mayor’s proposal.

A week later, on October 3, the Council will hold “work sessions” to discuss budget-related topics.

On October 4, the Council will host the first of two public hearings on the 2019-2020 budget, at 5:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall.

Over the next two weeks, the Council’s central staff will work with all nine Council members to collect the issues they wish to raise with the Mayor’s proposed budget. Staff will then write memos summarizing those issues, as well as any additional ones they have uncovered in their own investigations. They may also propose one or more ideas for addressing the issues raised.

The Council has set aside several days for “issue identification” discussions in committee: October 17-18, and October 22-24.  Those discussions will involve walking through the Council’s list of issues by department (usually guided by the central staff’s memos). Council members may or may not express their support or objections, but either way it’s not expected that any decisions will be made at these meetings. Depending on the number of issues to be discussed, the Council may shorten or cancel some of these meetings.

The Council will host its second public hearing on the budget on October 23rd, and 5:30pm in Council Chambers.

Based on the issue identification discussions, Council members will formally propose changes to the Mayor’s proposed budget. Those proposal are written up in forms called “green sheets.” Green sheets can address revenues, expenses, or both. All green sheets must be submitted by 10:00am on October 25th, and must have at least three Council members as co-sponsors (a pretty low bar). Beyond direct changes to the budget numbers, Council members can also propose “statements of legislative intent” (SLIs) that contain rules, restrictions, and provisos on how money may be spent, when and under what conditions the funds will be made available, and required reports back to the Council.

On October 29, the City Budget Office will provide updated revenue projections for 2019 and 2020.

The Council has scheduled four days, October 30 through November 2, for committee meetings to walk through all of the green sheets submitted. Again, Council members may express their support or objections to individual green sheets. And some of these meetings may also get cancelled if the Council doesn’t need that much time.

Now comes the hard part: Budget Chair Sally Bagshaw will then be responsible for taking the revenue projections and some set of green sheets that she believes have majority support among her colleagues, and building a “balancing package” that will have consensus support and meet the legal requirement for a balanced budget. The point of this exercise is to focus the Council’s time and attention on the more controversial proposals. You may remember that this is where last year’s Budget Chair, Lisa Herbold, went wrong: she built into her balancing package a proposal for a “head tax” that didn’t have majority support, and tied revenues from that tax to spending green sheets that many Council members saw as important. We should expect that Bagshaw will take a more conservative approach to building her balancing package.

Bagshaw will unveil her balancing package on November 7. Council members then have a second opportunity to submit green sheets to further modify the balancing package. However, there are two important rules that any green sheet must follow in order to be considered:

  • it must be self-balancing: any additional spending must be paid for either with new revenues or a cut to spending elsewhere. This ensures that each individual green sheet can, at least in theory, be addressed independently, since none can throw the budget out of balance;
  • five Council members must support placing the green sheet on the agenda to be considered — though that doesn’t obligate them to approve the green sheet itself.

On November 13 and 14, the Council will meet to vote on the green sheets. Technically, they must also vote to approve all the individual changes that were rolled into the balancing package, but if the Budget Chair has done her job well, those votes should be uncontroversial.

If all goes well, the final meeting of the Budget Committee will be on the morning of Monday, November 19, at which the Council will handle any last-minute amendments (there are always a few loose ends from the previous week), and vote the amended budget out of committee. That afternoon at the full City Council meeting, the Council will take its final vote to approve the budget. It then heads back to the Mayor’s Office for her signature.

If all doesn’t go well, the Council will have a couple of weeks to regroup and fix things in time to meet its legal requirement to deliver a final. balanced budget by early December.