OLYMPIA – For the first three days of the special session, everything involving the state’s troubled budget was done behind the closed doors. That went by the wayside Thursday.
Senate Republicans and their three Democratic allies released a new budget proposal at a morning press conference that they said moved closer to Democratic plans to spend more on public schools and higher education. They used terms like fabulous, honest and “game-changer” to describe their new plan.
But they hadn’t produced it in closed-door negotiations among budget writers just an hour before, and Gov. Chris Gregoire accused them of “wasting time” by unveiling a new budget proposal that has little chance of making it through the Legislature.
“This will not get us out of town,” a clearly angry Gregoire said. “The antics of today do not advance the ball.”
The new budget proposal drew swift praise from GOP sources, including Attorney General Rob McKenna, who is running for the job Gregoire is leaving. It was quickly criticized by progressive groups for cutting social programs like the Disability Lifeline.
It has more money for public schools and higher education than the plan pushed through the Senate two weeks ago in a parliamentary coup. It also demands reforms Senate Republicans say lessen the chance next year's Legislature will face another budget gap when it starts work.
After weeks of saying they wouldn't negotiate in the media, Senate Republican leaders essentially did just that. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, defended the release, saying details from the closed-door budget negotiations had been leaked to a Seattle-based website, Publicola.
“It’s being presented now,” Hewitt said. Gregoire and other legislators were getting it when the public did.
The new budget proposal adds nearly $49 million for public school programs that weren’t in the original Senate Republican budget, and another $12.7 million for higher education programs.
Senate Democrats welcomed those changes as they scrambled to review the new proposal: “I feel great about the movements that were made on the spending side,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, of Spokane, said.
But they criticized the Republicans’ plan to skip a payment to the state pension systems, which gives them $140 million to spend elsewhere. Republicans justify it by proposing structural changes to the pension systems, including ending the option of early retirement for new employees. That saves $2 billion over 25 years that would be placed in the pension funds, more than making up for the skipped pension payment that costs the state about $400 million over that same period, they said.
“Skipping a payment is joined at the hip to pension reform,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the leading Republican on the Senate budget committee. It doesn't create a hole for the next biennium.
“I don’t see it as fiscally responsible,” Brown countered in a later conversation with reporters. Democrats have urged instead that the state delay a payment of about $330 million to the school districts by a few days, shifting it into the next fiscal biennium; Republicans have called that fiscally irresponsible.
Gregoire had asked the leaders from each party in each house to come up with a budget that didn’t skip the pension payment or delay the school payment. Thursday she said she’d abandoned that in favor letting the chief budget writers take a crack at solving the problems in other ways. The budget writers met at 9 a.m., the new budget proposal was released at 10 a.m.
“My frustration level is as high as it gets,” the governor said about 2:30 p.m.
The new budget proposal has one other potential land mine: It sets aside money for 10 charter schools in "persistantly failing schools", a proposal which hasn't passed the Legislature, and removes money for “collaborative schools” – a program for education departments at the state’s colleges to help troubled schools – which did pass in the last session.
“I will veto it,” Gregoire said of the charter school proposal. “Stop wasting everybody’s time.”
She also threatened not to sign other legislation already passed until she sees a budget that can pass both chambers. If there’s no budget in 20 days, the point at which bills could become law without her signature, she may veto some.
Hewitt said an amendment containing the new budget proposal has been drafted and placed in the legislative process for a vote as early as next week. “If we have to, we’ll (pass) it just like we did two weeks ago,” he said.
Gregoire countered the Senate Republicans seemed to be “negotiating with themselves” to keep their 25-vote coalition, ignoring the fact they need at least 50 votes to pass a budget in the House and get her signature: “That’s my new mantra. 25, 50 and 1.”