Senate Democrats try to regroup after Republicans seized control of the budget debate with parliamentary maneuvers.
OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans, aided by three conservative Democrats, used parliamentary tactics to push their alternative budget to a vote Friday and embarass the majority of Democrats who up until that afternoon controlled the chamber.
They presented a budget that has no tax increases, some $773 million in cuts and avoids some of the accounting shifts that Democratic plans use to close a gap between the state's expected revenues and its planned expenses.
On a series of 25-24 votes, Republicans pulled a now obsolete budget proposed by the governor from the Ways and Means Committee where it has languished for months, then made a motion to substitute their alternative spending plan for the governor's.
The governor's budget was drafted before the latest economic forecasts, and has draconian cults that are no longer needed, Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle said. The Republican alternative hasn't even had a hearing.
“Transparency is being tossed out the window along with any hope for bipartisanship,” Murray said.
But Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said bipartisanship has been lacking since the session started in January. Unlike last year, when Senate Democrats and Republicans worked together on a budget, Republicans felt shut out of discussions over budget cuts and reforms. But with less than a week left in the session, Senate Democrats still didn't have the votes needed to pass their budget, he said.
“This is not about partisan politics. This is about trying to get things to work right,” Hewitt said.
Democrats objected at every turn, as bills were moved around by parliamentary rules. But they didn't have the votes to stop it as three of their own — Sens. Jim Kastama, Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom — voted with Republicans. As a delaying tactic, the remaining Democrats invoked a rule that requires a bill to be read aloud in the chamber unless Senators waive that rule with a two-thirds majority.
Reader Ken Edmonds began reading the budget, more than 235 pages, in full, enunciating every digit, funding change and even website address. It's a rule that hasn't been successfully invoked in decades, longtime staffers said, and a process that one estimated could take at least five hours.
While Edmonds read on, Democrats gathered in the wings to draft amendments and Gov. Chris Gregoire met with House leaders, who have already approved a budget and were expecting to negotiate compromises in the coming days.
At about page 35, senators agreed to a pause while both sides ate dinner and Democrats began preparing amendments to the Republicans' amendment.
A clearly angry Gregoire emerged from the meeting, and with a voice cracking from laryngitis, blasted Senate Republicans for dropping an unseen budget never subjected to public hearings into the process with less than week remaining in the session. “This instittion is about transparency, it's about letting the voices of the people through the door,” she said.
Gregoire dismissed Republican complaints that they'd been shut out of the budgeting process. “I have reached out and worked with them. They never brought (their budget) to me.”
She said final negotiations on the state's $30 billion budget would be based on the House budget, which has had public hearings.
Hewitt shrugged when told of the governor's comments. “At least we broke the logjam,” he said.
Senators returned at 8 p.m., with a stack of amendments from Democrats that would restore funding to a wide range of programs. Amendments that would add funding for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Disability Lifeline to the state Energy Office, food assistance for legal immigrants all failed on votes of 24-25, or were shouted down on voice votes.
Senators clashed over whose plan was better for public schools when Democrats tried to restore state money for school-based medical services. The program involves medically fragile children the schools are required to serve, but by cutting the funding, Brown said “Olympia is saying 'Gee, sorry, you have to do it but we won't help.'”
Sen. Joe Zarelli, the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, said the GOP budget proposal spends $251 million more on public schools than the plan Senate Democrats released on Tuesday. But that's “slightly disingenuous,” Murray said, and only true if they count some $330 million that Democrats “save” through an accounting shift that moves a payment to schools from the last day of this biennium to the first day of the next.