OLYMPIA – The Legislature is headed into overtime over its troubled budget, although like most things this year on how much the state has to spend and where to spend it, there are significant disagreements on the whats and whens of a special session.
Will it be a set period of time, like basketball overtime, sudden death like football, or an indefinite period of extra innings like baseball?
Gov. Chris Gregoire, who for days pushed for the Legislature to finish by today, acknowledged Wednesday that's not possible. She shifted the goal to having some kind of agreement on the budget by tonight, then coming back for a day or two to do “technical work” on that spending plan and pass it.
“They can’t procedurally get it done,” Gregoire said, although she refused to use the “S” words. “The minute I say special session, they’ll go to sleep, they’ll stop working". . .
. . . Republican leaders said a budget agreement wasn’t possible, and suggested everyone take a long weekend for a brief “cooling off period”.
“Some folks need a few days to ponder,” Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee said.
Senate Democrats said a budget deal was possible by Thursday, although they acknowledged the two parties have a major disagreement over a way to bring money into the budget.
“It’s about compromise,” Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, the Democratic chairman of that committee, said. “We’re open to compromise.”
Compromise is what Gregoire said she was seeking, too. But it was clear from various press briefings throughout Wednesday that compromise will be difficult on a key difference between the budget passed solely with Democratic votes in the House and one passed in the Senate by minority Republicans and three Democrats. The biggest disagreement isn’t where the state would spend money, but where it will get the money to spend.
Neither side is talking about a major tax increase, and any suggestion of a temporary sales tax increase died last month with a slightly improved economic forecast. But the state still has a hole of about $1.1 billion in its general fund, and Democrats want to plug about $322 million of it with an accounting maneuver: The state is scheduled to make payments totaling that amount to school districts at the end of June 2013, the last day of the two-year budget cycle. Democrats want to delay that “apportionment payment” until July 1, 2013, the first day of the next biennium.
Because of the way the state keeps its books, that means the Legislature wouldn’t have to cut $322 million from the general fund on the expenditure side. The school districts budget on a different fiscal year, so the delay doesn’t affect their ability to pay bills if they know it’s coming, Democrats add.
Republicans say that goes against one of their core principles of making the budget “sustainable”, that is, something that doesn’t guarantee shortfalls in future biennia. “We’re still firm on sticking with our principles,” Zarelli said.
But they proposed a shift, too. They want changes to the state’s retirement systems that will allow them to avoid a pension payment of about $133 million this year. Over time, Republicans say, those reforms will save the state money by changing rules for early retirement and closing one level of plans for new employees.
Depending on various economic factors, however, they may cost the state money in future years, Democrats say.
Gregoire, who has to sign any compromise that passes the Legislature, called for the apportionment delay in her budget last November. “I have trouble with skipping a pension payment, but I’m not going to rule anything out.”
That’s creating an impasse, she said, so legislative leaders are being asked to come up with other ways to come up with at least $200 million in revenue, a midway point between the two sides: “If they can get it resolved, they can solve all the (spending) problems inside the budget.”
That’s the big “if” that legislators face today.