OLYMPIA — It wasn’t supposed to be too long before residents could turn in their bump stocks to the state and get $150.
But this week Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste put the buyback program on hold amid unresolved questions surrounding its funding.
The problem stems from lawmakers mandating it be done but failing to provide any money to do it.
Batiste is trying to figure out if he has the legal authority to proceed, using agency resources, and then hope the Legislature acts next year to cover the tab.
“He’s putting it on hold on our request while we sort through the various issues,” said Jim Crawford, assistant director of the Office of Financial Management. “We’re reviewing the authority to spend given the specific language in the bill and the lack of appropriation.”
Capt. Monica Alexander, a state patrol spokeswoman, said a lot of planning has taken place, including drafting rules for the program.
“While we have put it on hold for right now, it doesn’t mean it is not going to happen,” she stressed. “In the interest of public safety, we want to move forward on this. But the chief also wants to do it properly.”
The news did not sit well with Rep. Paul Graves, R-Fall City, who came up with the idea.
“I think it will be really improper not to go forward,” he said.
A new state law banned the manufacture and sale of bump stocks as of July 1. It also makes it illegal to own or possess the devices beginning July 1, 2019. After that, the devices will be considered contraband and subject to seizure.
That law, Senate Bill 5992, contains the provision drafted by Graves directing the state patrol to design and implement a buyback program “subject to the availability of funds appropriated for this specific purpose.”
Lawmakers didn’t appropriate any money in the 2018 supplemental budget. Typically new programs don’t get started when there is such language in a bill and no money in a budget.
In March, leaders of the budget committees in the House and Senate sent Batiste a letter. They acknowledged the lack of funds and pledged to cover the costs in the future.
“It is our intent to provide an appropriation for the program based on actual costs in the 2019 supplemental budget. We do not wish to delay program implementation and we encourage the WSP to begin implementation,” wrote Sen. Christine Rolfes, D- Bainbridge Island, and Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.
Graves said the note from budget writers of the majority party “should provide the state patrol assurance enough.”
The letter is helpful but is no guarantee as current lawmakers cannot bind spending decisions of a future legislature, Crawford noted. Moreover if the state patrol spends money without specific authority it would not set a good precedent.
The program’s cost isn’t known. A fiscal note with the bill estimates the state patrol would spend $74,000, mostly on salaries of those running it and the cost of destroying surrendered items. Another sum would go to buy back the bump stocks. Alexander said they have no idea how many would get turned in.
In the meantime, planning is pretty far along.
Under the proposed rules, only Washington residents are eligible to receive money in exchanges for turning in one of the devices, which when attached to a semi-automatic firearm will allow a gun to fire rapidly as the recoil “bumps” the trigger.
The agency is looking to schedule dates and times for buybacks around the state.
As envisioned, each Washington resident who turns in a bump stock in working condition will get a receipt and a check will be mailed to them.
Lawmakers in Washington moved to outlaw the devices after the October 2017 mass slaying in Las Vegas in which the shooter reportedly had 12 rifles outfitted with the plastic attachments. Washington is one of several states that have taken this step.
President Donald Trump in March directed the U.S. Department of Justice to outlaw them as well. That month the federal agency began drafting rules to carry out the directive.