OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has narrowed his list of top priorities for lawmakers to address in a special session, saying Monday that the Legislature must focus on the operating budget, a transportation-funding package and new legislation to crack down on drunken drivers.
There are other issues that Inslee has pushed in recent weeks, including legislation to combat gun violence, new rules related to abortion insurance and financial aid for young immigrants. However, while Inslee said he’d still welcome movement on those matters, they have faced challenges in the state Senate.
“It’s a fact of life that we need to focus on the most important things first,” Inslee said.
Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday for a special legislative session to address a projected budget deficit of more than $1.2 billion for the next two-year budget, plus a court-required increase in funding for the state’s education system.
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Budget writers in the House and Senate have met a few times since the regular session adjourned on April 28. But with no deal reached during their two-week interim, the special legislative session that started Monday could take its full allotted 30 days, if not longer.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the main focus during the special session needs to be on the budget.
“The public expects us to get our work done, and that needs to be our primary focus,” he said. “The sooner the better.”
No floor votes were expected this week, but a few committee hearings had been scheduled, including a Tuesday Senate Law & Justice Committee meeting where a vote was expected on legislation related to drunken driving. Political leaders have been looking to strengthen the state’s impaired-driving laws in the wake of recent fatal accidents.
Inslee is also looking for a large transportation package that would fund major projects in the coming years. It likely would include some sort of new revenue, such as an increase in the gas tax, but it has faced opposition in the Senate because of concerns over a proposal for a new Interstate 5 bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland.
The $1.2 billion deficit for the budget ending in mid-2015 does not include additional money needed for a court-ordered requirement that lawmakers increase education funding. The House and Senate have taken different approaches to balance state spending and increase funding for education, with the biggest difference involving whether to raise revenue from extending taxes or eliminating tax breaks.
The Senate is controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, which passed a budget during the regular session that balances spending without new taxes, relying on cuts to social programs and fund transfers.
The House’s budget would increase tax revenue by about $1 billion over the next two years, including a permanent extension of business taxes to raise more than half a billion dollars. The plan also would repeal tax breaks for travel agents, bottled water and fuel.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said that a big sticking point still is the discussion of revenue, but negotiations continue.
“I think it’s obvious there’s been progress made from where we were when we left here,” he said. “You have to start somewhere.”