OLYMPIA — State lawmakers remain stuck in a partisan fight that appears certain to drive the Legislature into a second special session.
While legislators technically have until midnight Tuesday to pass a state operating budget, no one expects that to happen, given the lack of progress in negotiations.
“The governor said at the end of (regular) session that we were light years apart. I would say we’re still out in space,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said Monday.
Gov. Jay Inslee has said a new session would start Wednesday, if needed.
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What is left to do? Pretty much everything they’ve talked about accomplishing, including closing a hefty budget shortfall and potentially putting an additional $1 billion into education to meet a state Supreme Court mandate. There’s also been little movement on passing a transportation-tax package or cracking down on drunken driving.
Given the impasse, some lawmakers are openly fretting about a state government shutdown, should the Legislature fail to pass a new two-year budget by June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. The governor’s budget office has started planning for that possibility.
The Legislature went into its first special session May 13 after failing to wrap up its business during the 105-day regular session earlier this year.
The two sides seemingly have gotten closer in terms of how much money to spend. The Senate, controlled by a GOP-led majority, on Saturday approved a roughly $33.3 billion budget proposal. The House, run by Democrats, last week passed a $33.6 billion budget, much smaller than the $34.5 billion budget it passed in April.
However, that apparent movement belies a much bigger fight.
The House Democrats’ budget assumes the Legislature will pass a law to get around a state Supreme Court ruling that otherwise could cost the state millions of dollars in estate-tax refunds.
Democrats also want to close a couple of tax breaks, including one for residential phone services, to raise new revenue.
The Republican-led caucus in the Senate has indicated it would go along with those proposals only if the Legislature moves ahead with three controversial policy changes the caucus favors.
The GOP wants two measures placed on the November ballot. One would allow principals to have the option of rejecting teachers assigned to their schools. Another would cap spending outside of education using a formula based on population growth and the rate of inflation.
The idea is to drive more money into education by limiting spending growth in other areas.
Senate Republicans also want a measure passed into law by the Legislature that would allow workers at least 40 years old to have the option of settling part of their worker-compensation claims through structured settlements.
Currently, such settlements are available to injured workers older than 55. That’s supposed to drop to age 50 by 2016. Medical benefits can’t be settled.
House Democrats oppose all three measures and say the votes aren’t there for the legislation as currently written.
Given the intense opposition to the Republican proposals, Democrats have even begun discussing the prospect of passing a budget that includes no new tax revenue. Sullivan said that option was more likely than it was a month ago, but he wasn’t ready to say that’s what they will do.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said he’d like to see the Legislature approve the tax measures in the House budget, along with the policy measures his caucus wants approved.
“The thing is, we have the votes for the policy bills and, frankly, for the revenue bills in the Senate. You think about it, if we brought those revenue bills to the floor, I think you’d have 25 votes pretty quickly,” Hill said.
There are other areas of disagreement as well, including funding for social services and how to spend any additional money for education.
The Senate is pushing to spend almost all the additional funding on basics like textbooks and building utilities, as well as a program to help high poverty schools. The House supports those items but also wants to allocate more to class-size reduction and full-day kindergarten.
Sullivan, the House majority leader, said, “It’s what’s within the budgets that’s the problem.”
Still, negotiators were working to reach an agreement Monday ahead of the looming deadline, with members of both parties and both chambers seen streaming in and out of the governor’s office.
At one point, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle paused between negotiations for a cup of tea off the House floor.
“I’m about to go in,” said the Seattle Democrat, taking a deep breath. “Just getting ready.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org