OLYMPIA — With state agencies preparing to warn many of their workers of temporary layoffs on Monday, legislators signaled they are close to a deal on a two-year operating budget.
So close, in fact, the leaders of the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus were predicting it would be “done and out of here by Sunday.”
House leaders were less specific about when a deal could be reached, but Speaker Frank Chopp said a morning of what he called shuttle diplomacy had produced “a good exchange of offers.”
Earlier in the morning, Gov. Jay Inslee's staff released a list of which agencies would be completely or partially shut down, and which would remain open, if the Legislature didn't pass an operating budget by July 1. The budget contains legal authority for the state to spend money on many programs and pay the salaries of state employees connected to them. In the last week, each agency was required to determine which programs get spending authority from a separate account, or would be required under separate constitutional authority, federal law or certain contracts.
In releasing the list, Mary Alice Heuschel, Inslee's chief of staff, said that while budget negotiations are continuing, the state needed an emergency plan.
“Like an earthquake… we need to have a plan in case this occurs,” she said. If there's no budget plan that has been through at least some legislative action by Monday, temporary layoff notices would go out to thousands of state workers because of contract requirements.
As Heuschel and other state officials were finishing up their press conference, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, and Assistant Leader Linda Evans Parlette stopped in the room on their way to a meeting with Inslee. They left the governor's office a few minutes later, went to Chopp's office on the House side of the Capitol, then Chopp and Hunter accompanied the Senate leaders to Tom's office on the other side of the building.
Chopp later characterized it as “a good productive conversation” but would give no details. He said it was possible that a budget agreement would be ready and have had some legislative action by Monday. Most House members are back home, but Chopp said they could be brought back to Olympia within the two days it would take to process and print a full budget, if there's an agreement.
Mid afternoon update: Before the Senate's afternoon session started, Tom said budget negotiations were moving well enough that he predicted “an agreement in principle, today or tomorrow.” The biggest question in his mind was how much of the $480 million from an improved economic forecast, lower demand for state services and a change in the estate tax would go into education.
“We are going to finish on Sunday,” he predicted. “There's no reason not to have it all done by then.”
Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said negotiators had exchanged two different offers in three hours and that there were only “a couple sticking points” remaining. He wouldn't elaborate on what those were, but agreed it was “definitely possible” that a budget could be passed by Sunday.
The mechanics of budget writing, however, whould make that difficult unless a deal is struck Thursday. After an agreement is reached on the overall size of the budget and its major components, legislator and staff must go through the document line by line to adjust spending levels for each program in a document that usually exceeds 400 pages. Those figures have to be checked and the document printed, then introduced either as a separate bill or an amendment to an existing budget bill before one chamber can vote on it.