Republicans in the state Senate on Friday, joined by three conservative Democrats, used a rare procedural move to take over the budget plan on the Senate floor. After midnight, the budget was narrowly approved 25-24. It now goes to the state House.
OLYMPIA — Republicans pulled a coup early Saturday, seizing control of the state Senate to pass a budget radically different from one proposed by the Democratic majority.
The GOP budget passed on a 25-to-24 vote after more than eight hours of procedural battles and heated debate that started Friday afternoon and dragged past midnight.
Republicans succeeded because three conservative Democrats crossed party lines to hand them control of the process.
The move blew up a legislative session that Democrats argued was headed for a close on March 8, the last day of the regular session.
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The budget now goes to the House, where it’s guaranteed a hostile reception from Democrats, who hold a 56-42 majority.
Senate Democrats were furious, accusing Republicans of trying to pass a budget that most lawmakers hadn’t seen yet.
“This is a narrow, extremist agenda that is being shoved down our throats tonight,” said Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat who drafted the Democrats’ budget.
Republicans said they simply were trying to make changes needed to keep the state from going into the red again — and that Democrats didn’t have enough votes to pass their own budget.
“Somebody had to get things going,” said Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. “This is not about partisan politics. This is about trying to get things to work right.”
Three Democrats — Sens. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Jim Kastama of Puyallup — broke from their party, allowing Republicans to bring their version of the budget to the Senate floor.
Democrats hold a 27-22 majority, but the Democrats who joined Republicans gave the GOP a 25-24 advantage.
That allowed Republicans to use procedural moves to pull bills to the floor, even those that hadn’t had a public hearing.
Democrats tried to slow down the process by requiring a clerk to read aloud the entire 235-page budget bill. That went on for about an hour until lawmakers agreed to take a break and regroup.
Kastama said he went along with the GOP because a series of bills, including a proposed constitutional amendment to require a balanced state budget, are languishing in the Legislature. He wants them passed.
“People are shocked,” he said about the GOP takeover. “But this is what you do when people can’t get bills through the process.”
Tom said he was frustrated by the Democrats’ spending proposal, along with the failure to pass “government reform.”
“Another budget that is unsustainable, relies upon accounting gimmicks and sets our state up for a perennial deficit is simply unacceptable,” he said in a statement.
What GOP budget does
The Senate Republican proposal closes a roughly $1 billion budget shortfall, in part by reducing state spending more than the Democrats’ proposal. Net cuts include: $44 million to K-12 schools and $30 million to higher education, according to nonpartisan staff.
The Democratic budget contained no education cuts.
The GOP plan also would reduce bonuses for teachers and eliminate a program known as Disability Lifeline, a welfare and health-care program for unemployable adults who aren’t covered by federal Social Security benefits.
It would leave $502 million in reserves to handle unexpected expenses. Democrats had proposed leaving $369 million.
The GOP budget also would not rely on a $330 million delay in payments to school districts to help close the shortfall and avoid cuts. The Senate Democrats had proposed to make the delayed payments permanent, meaning school districts that typically get a major disbursement at the end of June would instead get it in early July.
What happens from here is anybody’s guess.
The last time this occurred was in 1987, when former Sen. Brad Owen, now the lieutenant governor, and two other Democrats jumped ship to help Republicans write a no-new-taxes budget.
Now Democrats say the well is poisoned.
If reactions by House Speaker Frank Chopp and Gov. Chris Gregoire to Friday’s events are any guide, the Legislature will be in town far beyond the scheduled March 8 adjournment day.
“The Senate Republicans have exercised the worst abuse of power I have ever witnessed in the Legislature,” Chopp, D-Seattle, said in a statement. “It says something about them that the minute they gained power, they abused it.”
Gregoire, standing outside the speaker’s office, was furious as well.
“I am chagrined that they’re over there right now working on something I’ve never seen, the members have never seen — members on both parties have never seen, and they’re going to take a vote tonight?” she said.
“This is not how we do business in Washington state.”
Staff writer Stephanie Kim and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org