OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans and the conservative Democrats who helped them pass an alternate budget last month said they are no closer to agreement on a plan to fix the state's operating budget problems.
“The longer we stay here, the less sustainable th budget they put out becomes,” Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said. The proposal released Wednesday morning by House Democrats “just moved us farther apart as far as the structure of the budget.”
Prospects that both chambers will pass a budget and accompanying reforms before the next Tuesday, when the special session is scheduled to end, seemed to grow dimmer with each passing hour.
Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, contended it was the GOP and the three “road kill” Democrats who have given up the most in negotiations over certain reforms. They dropped a proposal to skip next year's payment to the state pension system and a proposal to close one of the pension plans. But they want to end early retirement provisions for state employees set up under two separate laws; House Democrats are proposing just ending the most recent law.
“We've moved significantly, but we're not going to fold our tent and go home,” Zarelli said. Democrats have supported the complete package of changes to early retirement provisions in the past, he added.
Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, one of the three Democrats who voted for the budget crafted by Republicans, said a new proposal to pass a law requiring a balanced budget for two years and develop ways to balance it over four years doesn't go far enough toward the goal of structuring spending plans so legislators don't face massive cuts every year when they start a session.
The Legislature already passes a balanced budget over two years, even if that's not required by law, Kastama added. “If we didn't do that, we couldn't sell our bonds.”
Through the assembled reporters, the coalition of senators traded jabs with House Democrats and their earlier statements about who was responsible for the slow progress toward a budget deal in this latest special session. Each group accused the other of refusing to make concessions, and painted themselves as the ones giving the most in closed door negotiations.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, had said negotiators hadn't even been able to negotiate the budget because of Senate Republicans insistence on reforming state government. “We've come significantly toward their position.”
Countered Zarelli: “I don't see it as a good faith effort. They want to take the last few days before Easter, and send an Easter egg our way.”
To complete its work by Tuesday, the House will have to pass a budget and the bills surrounding it sometime this week, and send them to the Senate where it must pass in the same version. House Democratic leaders said they don't know if they have the votes to pass some of the reforms they are proposing; if they do, it goes to the Senate where Democrats also hold a majority but don't have the votes to pass the current proposal.
Asked whether the state was looking at another special session — which would be the third since Thanksgiving to address the current budget problem — Zarelli said Republicans expected “to be flexible but not roll over” and weren't going to be rushed into a vote: “It's going to take whatever time it takes.”