Washington lawmakers are days away from the end of the regular legislative session — and negotiations over the state’s operating budget haven’t begun. It’s a situation eerily similar to 2015.
OLYMPIA — If you’re looking for déjà vu, come to the state Capitol.
Washington lawmakers are days away from the end of their regular legislative session, and negotiations over the state’s operating budget haven’t begun in earnest.
The main reason: Republicans say they won’t begin budget talks until Democrats vote the tax proposals that fund their 2017-19 operating-budget plan off the House floor.
Without a vote on those taxes, Republicans don’t believe Democrats have a living, breathing proposal.
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“We’re negotiating with ghost dollars; they don’t exist, they haven’t passed,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said this week in a regular news conference. “We’re negotiating with a ghost,” he added later.
Nearly two years ago to the day, then-GOP budget writer Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, was demanding Democrats pass their proposed taxes off the floor before the 2015-17 budget talks could start.
Otherwise, the Democratic plan was all about “phantom money,” Hill said at the time.
Democratic lawmakers this session have repeatedly asked Republicans to sit down to work on a budget compromise, said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
But while the chief budget negotiators of each party have spoken informally, no real negotiations have begun.
Democratic requests for negotiations are “just falling on deaf ears,” Sullivan said this week, sounding as exasperated as he did at this time in 2015.
Democratic lawmakers have been reluctant to pass taxes that will be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate and point to some Republican budget-related bills that have yet to pass the Senate.
The proposed property-tax increases in the GOP education-funding plan also come with a referendum clause.
“It’s a hope and a prayer in November, that the voters are going to approve revenue,” said Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes and chair of the House Finance Committee.
Drafted and approved every two years, the state operating budget is Washington’s blueprint for taxing and spending. It determines funding for schools, prisons, social programs and state parks, among other things.
Lawmakers are expected to go into at least one special session this year over the budget and education funding.
The generally accepted deadline for a deal is June 30. If there’s no new budget by then, Washington’s government would begin to shut down July 1.
Lawmakers in 2015 stayed in Olympia for a record-setting 176 days over the budget, just barely avoiding a government shutdown in a session that nonetheless spilled into July.
Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee have long argued that Washington’s tax system is outdated and unfair to low-income residents, and that more money is needed to properly fund K-12 schools and other programs.
Just like in 2015, the governor and Democratic lawmakers have proposed several different ways of raising revenue.
This year, Inslee and House Democrats in separate proposals put forth a tax on some capital assets, the elimination of some corporate tax preferences, and restructuring the Washington’s business-and-occupation tax.
Inslee’s plan, as in 2015, also proposes a tax on carbon.
House Democrats this year tossed a new idea into the mix. Their plan would restructure the state’s real-estate excise tax. The changes would cut or keep rates flat for most homebuyers, but boost rates on homes worth more than $1 million.
Republicans have generally argued that no new taxes are needed to fund education and other government services.
Their proposed 2017-19 budget makes cuts to some social safety-net programs, eliminates hundreds of state agency managers, and reshuffles money in the budget.
This year, to address the state Supreme Court’s education-funding order known as the McCleary decision, the GOP has also proposed increasing some property taxes.
The McCleary part of their budget plan would boost taxes on “property rich” areas like Seattle and Bellevue, and use that money to fund schools in “property poor” districts elsewhere in the state.
A group of lawmakers is holding separate negotiations on an education-funding solution to satisfy the McCleary decision.