OLYMPIA — This legislative session was supposed to be different.
At least that’s what Republicans argued when they took control of the state Senate, promising to usher in a new era of bipartisanship, finish the state’s business in the 105-day regular session and avoid the gridlock found in Congress.
“This is the sort of cooperation people are hungry for,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, said before the session started. “We want to do things different than the other Washington.”
And yet the Legislature, now on day 105, is headed toward a special session without completing an operating budget, or voting on a transportation tax package supported by a coalition of business, labor and environmental groups.
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Senate Republicans couldn’t push through most of their priorities, such as letter grades for public schools and changes to state pension system.
Democrats, who control the House and governor’s office, were unable to pass laws dealing with gun control, abortion and college financial aid to undocumented residents.
Even legislation cracking down on drunken driving is in limbo, and partisan bickering is rampant with dueling news conferences being held by both parties to blame each other for the mess.
Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington, says he sees little difference between Olympia and Congress. “At this point, it’s quite similar,” he said. “If anything, they appear to be getting less done.”
The budget, and probably the other issues as well, will come up for discussion again in the yet to be announced special session, which under the state Constitution can last up to 30 days.
Special sessions have become the norm in recent decades. The Legislature has been called into at least one special session in 20 of the past 30 years. In other words, legislators in two out of every three regular sessions end up requiring extra time to finish their work.
To be fair, lawmakers have not sat on their hands for the past 104 days. The Legislature has sent more than 300 measures to the governor for his signature.
Many are typical meat-and-potato bills that pass every year, like House Bill 1271, which lets denturists provide “non-orthodontic removable oral devices and teeth whitening.”
There were more substantive measures as well, such as Senate Bill 5329, which establishes a structure for some of the state’s lowest performing schools to get more money in exchange for making changes, if funding is available.
Yet the signature bills of the session, the ones that consumed the most time and energy, remain largely unresolved.
For example, legislation requiring universal background checks for gun purchases died in the House without going to the floor because Democrats fell two votes short.
A GOP-backed measure that would grade schools on an A-to-F scale passed the Senate but has not gotten out of committee in the House.
A proposed House transportation tax package that would spend $8.4 billion on various projects, including work on Interstate 405 and I-5, has not come up for a floor vote.
Then there’s the stalemate over the state budget.
The House and Senate have proposed budgets that close a hefty budget shortfall and ostensibly plow an additional $1 billion into education to meet a state Supreme Court mandate. But they do it in much different ways.
House Democrats proposed a $34.5 billion spending plan that includes about $900 million in additional revenue from closing several tax breaks and permanently extending a temporary business and occupation tax due to expire this summer.
The Senate proposed a $33.3 billion budget that includes no new tax revenue. It primarily relies on spending cuts, fund transfers and government efficiencies.
Senate Republicans have said they will not agree to any new tax revenue.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats say the GOP budget cuts — which include reductions in spending for some state services that help the working poor and the disabled — go too deep and they will not agree to a budget without new tax dollars.
So far, negotiators have not agreed how much the state should spend overall during the next two years. Budget writers call it “the size of the box.”
Nor have they agreed how much should be spent on K-12 education.
“There are very significant differences between these budgets,” House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
The waning days of the regular session haven’t boded well for wrapping up business quickly during a special session.
Not only do the parties seemingly disagree about every substantial piece of legislation, they’re even fighting about when a special session should start.
Members of the Senate GOP-led majority at a Thursday news conference accused Inslee — who has not discussed the specifics of a special session — of planning to wait several weeks before bringing legislators back to resume work.
“There are rumors a special session might be called in two or three weeks. I’ve got to say that, frankly, I smell a rat,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon. “I think it’s politics.”
Sheldon, D-Potlatch, along with Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, crossed party lines the first day of the session to caucus with Republicans and give that party control of the Senate.
Schlicher was appointed to replace former Democratic state Sen. Derek Kilmer, who was elected to Congress last year. Schlicher stands for election this year. GOP state Rep. Jan Angel is running for that seat as well.
Murray, who is running for mayor of Seattle, said he doesn’t care when a special session is called, maintaining it won’t hurt his campaign. As for Schlicher, Murray argues Republicans just want to keep him from raising money to improve their chances of taking the seat.
Inslee’s office, meanwhile, fumed at what was said at the news conference held by the GOP-led majority. “They know that’s out of line,” Inslee spokesman David Postman said.
Tom, the Senate Majority Leader, said he urged members of his caucus not to hold the news conference. “We didn’t know if that was the best way to further negotiations,” he said in an interview.
Postman said he had the answer to that: “It’s not the best way to approach negotiations.”
Democrats say they’re getting two different messages from the Senate majority. In private meetings with budget writers, they appear to be negotiating in good faith, but then members of their caucus hold news conferences attacking Democrats.
“The question I have is, who are we negotiating with?” Hunter said.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org