With Washington lawmakers not yet in negotiations over a new state budget, but progress reported on K-12 school funding, Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday called a special session so they can continue their work.
OLYMPIA — Washington’s regular legislative session is ending just as it began back in January, with Democrats and Republicans deeply divided over how and whether to raise revenue to fund K-12 schools and other programs.
With lawmakers quietly negotiating on education policy and publicly sniping at each other over stalled state budget talks, Gov. Jay Inslee called a special legislative session to begin Monday so lawmakers could continue their work.
The special session came as no surprise. Few expected lawmakers to get their two biggest jobs done this year on time.
Yet elected officials sounded frustrated as they moved into what has become a staple of their work, a spring staring contest over big decisions that in recent years has been ended only by the threat of a July 1 state government shutdown.
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Since 2010, lawmakers have gone into overtime every year but one. In 2013 and 2015, other recent budget-writing years, lawmakers have needed more than one special session.
The political dynamics that ensure eventual compromise also inspire gridlock.
Democrats control the House by a two-vote margin. Republicans — joined by one conservative Democrat — control the Senate by a single vote.
In his news conference announcing the special session, Inslee called on Republicans to start budget negotiations, and said that both parties would need to compromise.
“We know none of the budgets that have been proposed so far, the Republicans’, the Democrats’ or mine, will be the final, go-home budget,” Inslee said. “The go-home budget will by necessity be a compromise among all three.”
“I am doing everything I can humanly imagine to do, you know, short of waterboarding, to get these folks to negotiate,” the governor said later. “But the Republicans have refused, to date.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats are “going to have to drop some of their ideas” and compromise with Republicans, Inslee added.
Lawmakers this year are confronting the last big remaining piece of the McCleary education-funding order: how the state should pay for teacher, administrator and other school-worker salaries.
A solution, which the state Supreme Court has said must be agreed to by whenever lawmakers finish this year, is expected to cost billions of dollars.
Meanwhile, legislators must draft Washington’s 2017-19 operating budget, which is also expected to address issues with the state’s mental-health system.
That document funds schools, prisons, parks, social services and other programs. The state’s current two-year, $38.2 billion budget runs through the end of June.
Democratic House lawmakers and Inslee have called for raising revenue through a series of new and increased taxes to pay for schools and other priorities.
Those proposals include a new tax on capital gains, and restructuring of the state’s business-and-occupation taxes. Inslee has also proposed a carbon tax.
But Republicans, as they did in 2015, have said they won’t negotiate until Democrats vote their tax package off the House floor.
“They aren’t willing to bring it to a vote, that tells me they don’t have support,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and chief GOP budget writer.
The eight lawmakers in education negotiations, meanwhile, are “making progress on K-12, so that’s good,” Braun added.
Senate Republicans have argued that existing revenue can cover most needs — and released a proposed budget that reflects that position.
The GOP has also proposed replacing local school levies with a uniform, statewide property tax to fund schools. Among other things, that proposal would raise taxes in “property rich” school districts like Seattle and Bellevue while reducing taxes in “property poor” districts.
The Legislature’s 105-day regular session officially ends Sunday, though lawmakers weren’t expected to work over the weekend. Special sessions can last up to 30 days.
Knowing special sessions are likely, the administrative offices of the House and Senate save money during the rest of the year and try to reduce costs when lawmakers go into overtime.
As a result, taxpayers aren’t expected to wind up paying more for this session, and possibly additional special sessions this year.
Lawmakers, however, often wind up bringing home more money. Legislators can claim $120 per day in living expenses while the Legislature is in session, as well as reimbursement for travel.
In the three special sessions held during 2015’s budget battles, the House paid lawmakers about $341,500 total in such costs, according to Bernard Dean, House chief clerk.
Senate lawmakers took home about $158,000 in living and travel expenses during that same time frame, according to data provided by Secretary of the Senate Hunter Goodman.