OLYMPIA — The Legislature seemed headed for a special session Monday as leaders of both parties agreed it will be difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate a compromise between very different spending plans passed by the House and Senate in the next four days.
Thursday is the end of the regular 60-day session. In the remaining time, legislative budget leaders would have to schedule meetings, find some middle ground between a budget that passed the House solely with Democratic votes and a budget that passed the Senate with all the Republican and three Democratic votes.
The chances of that happening were rated as “highly unlikely” to “not possible” by members of both sides in the budget debate.
The remaining 24 Senate Democrats are very much opposed to both the content of that budget and the way it was introduced and passed without a hearing on a surprise parliamentary maneuver Friday.
“I don't get the timing …unless it was to say 'Take that, Democrats,' ” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane,said. The Ways and Means Committee had scheduled a hearing Saturday on the Senate Democrats budget, and Republicans could have introduced their budget there. Two of the Democrats who voted with Republicans in the marathon session Friday night are on that committee, so that would have blocked the main Senate Democratic proposal, and Republicans could have either tried to vote their budget out of committee or discussed compromises on different spending cuts and revenue options, she said.
That would have been more in line with bipartisan work on budgets that was common in the Senate last year, she said.
Leading Senate Republicans contended that bipartisan budget discussions broke down in mid February after the latest revenue forecasts showed the state's revenue and expense projections improving, and Democrats hadn't rounded up the votes they need for their budget. “Since when is it the ranking minority (of Ways and Means) member's responsibility to put together a budget and present it to the majority?” Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said.
House and Senate Democrats met over the weekend to discuss a budget compromises. Zarelli, R-Ridgeview, said he has talked with two Ways and Means Committee chairmen, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, but no formal talks have been held, or even scheduled.
To find a compromise, Zarelli said everyone would need to agree to certain things. For Republicans, that would include a certain level for the reserve fund, and not spending more than comes in through an accounting maneuver that delays a $330 million payment to school districts by one day, shifting it into the next biennium. After that, negotiators can agree “on the stuff we're going to spend money on,” he said.
The $330 million payment, known as the apportionment payment, is a major bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans. It's money the state pays to school districts, and by delaying it a day, Democrats say they avoid deep cuts to schools, colleges and social programs. Republicans say it's fiscally irresponsible.
“What if we did the whole budget with a one-day delay? We'd have a surplus” on paper, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said.
But Brown countered Senate Democrats were proposing a permanent shift for the apportionment payment, so school districts would be able to fit that into their budgets. Republicans have different accounting shifts in their budget, so “I'm not getting why the (apportionment) shift is the big deal.”
But if it is a non-negotiable demand on the part of Republicans — House Republicans are also opposed to the shift — they'll have to be willing to compromise on some things, too, such as closing some tax exemptions to increase the revenue side of the budget equation, Murray said. That would require a super majority, which means Republican votes.
“If people start drawing lines in the sand, we won't get out of here,” Murray said. “If it's simply asking us to cut, we're not going to get there.”