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Posts tagged: Joe Zarelli

Special Session: Budget deal may be far away

OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans and the conservative Democrats who helped them pass an alternate budget last month said they are no closer to agreement on a plan to fix the state's operating budget problems.

“The longer we stay here, the less sustainable th budget they put out becomes,” Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said. The proposal released Wednesday morning by House Democrats “just moved us farther apart as far as the structure of the budget.”

Prospects that both chambers will pass a budget and accompanying reforms before the next Tuesday, when the special session is scheduled to end, seemed to grow dimmer with each passing hour.

Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, contended it was the GOP and the three “road kill” Democrats who have given up the most in negotiations over certain reforms.  They dropped a proposal to skip next year's payment to the state pension system and a proposal to close one of the pension plans. But they want to end early retirement provisions for state employees set up under two separate laws; House Democrats are proposing just ending the most recent law.

“We've moved significantly, but we're not going to fold our tent and go home,” Zarelli said. Democrats have supported the complete package of changes to early retirement provisions in the past, he added.

Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, one of the three Democrats who voted for the budget crafted by Republicans, said a new proposal to pass a law requiring a balanced budget for two years and develop ways to balance it over four years doesn't go far enough toward the goal of structuring spending plans so legislators don't face massive cuts every year when they start a session.

The Legislature already passes a balanced budget over two years, even if that's not required by law, Kastama added. “If we didn't do that, we couldn't sell our bonds.”

Through the assembled reporters, the coalition of senators traded jabs with House Democrats and their earlier statements about who was responsible for the slow progress toward a budget deal in this latest special session.  Each group accused the other of refusing to make concessions, and painted themselves as the ones giving the most in closed door negotiations.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, had said negotiators hadn't even been able to negotiate the budget because of Senate Republicans insistence on reforming state government. “We've come significantly toward their position.”

Countered Zarelli: “I don't see it as a good faith effort. They want to take the last few days before Easter, and send an Easter egg our way.”

To complete its work by Tuesday, the House will have to pass a budget and the bills surrounding it sometime this week, and send them to the Senate where it must pass in the same version. House Democratic leaders said they don't know if they have the votes to pass some of the reforms they are proposing; if they do, it goes to the Senate where Democrats also hold a majority but don't have the votes to pass the current proposal.

Asked whether the state was looking at another special session — which would be the third since Thanksgiving to address the current budget problem — Zarelli said Republicans expected “to be flexible but not roll over” and weren't going to be rushed into a vote: “It's going to take whatever time it takes.”

Special Session: New House budget may not have the votes

OLYMPIA — House Democrats rolled out the latest version of a general operating budget this morning, along with several changes to state programs, but conceded they didn't know whether this exact plan will break the ongoing stalemate.

“We actually don't know if we have the votes for all this,” Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, called it an effort to “get the ball rolling” and address concerns from Republicans that have been discussed in negotiations, rather than the final package of budget and supporting laws that will pass.

“It's mostly an effort to keep the process moving,” Sullivan said. The clock is ticking. The last day of the special session is Tuesday, and in between are Good Friday, the beginning of Passover, and Easter.

Hunter said he assumes there are enough Democratic votes to pass the budget in the House, but some of the other changes that the budget relies on — changes to the state's early retirement plans, reduced class sizes that are on the books from a statewide initiative but often cancelled to cut costs, new rules for balancing the budget over two and four years — will need Republican votes to pass. Although Democrats and Republicans from both chambers have been in negotiations for three weeks, there's no indication the GOP will sign on.

In a report on Northwest News Service, Joe Zarelli, the top Republican on budget matters in the Senate, referred to reforms the Democrats were proposing as “dust.” Senate Republicans, and Democrats who joined with them during the regular session to pass a very different budget, scheduled a press conference for 12:30 p.m. For a report on that press conference, click here.

House Democrats also said they would introduced a pared down version of the Capital Budget, which they refer to as the Jobs Plan, that is nearly $1 billion. It's that plan that has major state construction project, some of them funded by state bond sales and others by special accounts. On the list of projects from various accounts is some $37 million to complete the Biomedical and Health Sciences building at Washington State University's Riverpoint campus in Spokane.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, chairman of the Capital Budget Committee, said it was time to take advantage of low interest rates in the bond market to build the projects. All the projects listed would employ more than 22,000 people, most in the hard-hit construction sector.

But the Capital Budget is tied in part to the General Operating budget, which revenue projections and scheduled expenses say has a hole of more than $1 billion. Legislators struggled through the regular 60-day session and are 23 days into their 30-day special session, trying to fill that hole.

In past budget plans, Democrats have suggested an accounting shift that delays a payment to the state's school districts by a few days, moving it into the next biennium so it doesn't show up on the state's books. Republicans have criticized that as a gimmick, and the latest budget drops that.

It also does not have a Republican proposal to skip a payment to the state's pension plans, which Democrats have derided as a gimmick and did not include in previous budgets. Democrats are proposing one shift to the state pension system, eliminating for new employees an option for early retirement that was approved in 2007, allowing retilrement with a full pension at 62 for those with 30 years of service; Republicans also wanted another early retirement option passed by the Legislature in 2000; Democrats don't have that, nor are they calling for the closure of some other plans. That cuts estimates for long-term savings about in half, to $1 billion over some 20 years, but doesn't really help or hurt the General Fund's bottom line this biennium.

Instead of the delayed school payment or the skipped pension payment, House Democrats embrace a proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire to modernize the system the state uses to pay cities and counties the money collected for sales tax. That shifts about $238 million into a working reserve, and boosts the budget's bottom line.

The budget has  no tax increases, and no reductions to tax credits or exemptions offered to busineses. It makes no changes to public schools or state universities and colleges, and drops a proposed 5 percent increase in Temporary Assistance to Need Families payments.

The package of reforms that will have a hearing this afternoon in the House Ways and Means Committee includes a new law that would require a two-year balanced budget and propose a way to create a four-year balanced budget. But that could fall short of a proposal by Senate Republicans and some conservative Democrats for a four-year balanced budget amendment.

New GOP budget: ‘Game changer’ or ‘waste of time’?

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.”
  

To read the rest of this post, or to comment, click here to go inside the blog.

New state budget pushed into the fray

OLYMPIA — In an effort to break a budget logjam, Senate Republicans and their three Democratic allies unveiled a new  spending plan Thursday morning that would spend more on public schools and state colleges.

It also offers more money for child care for working families and has no new taxes. But it does skip a $140 million payment to state pension systems in exchange for other changes to pension plans that would save money in the long run. 

Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, called it a “compromise approach” to the differences between the budget passed in a parliamentary takeover two weeks ago in the Senate and a significantly different plan passed by House Democrats on the last day of the regular session.

Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, said it was a better plan than the one he joined with Republicans to pass. “It's a budget that can bring the special session to a close.”

Senate Democratic leaders, who only saw the proposal at the same time Republicans released it at a morning news conference, said it has “some very good movement,” because it restores money for public schools and higher education that Republicans proposed cutting two weeks ago.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she was still concerned that the proposal cuts money for the Disability Lifeline, but “I feel great about the moves that were made on the spending side.”

The public release of a new budget proposal, signaled movement over talks which have essentially been at a stalemate for two weeks. But potential roadblocks quickly surfaced.

Democrats said they still have concerns about skipping the $140 million pension payment, because the cost of that grows over time. Republicans acknowledge the long-term cost of that is about $400 million over 25 years, but they estimate the savings from ending early retirements for new state employees would be $2 billion over that period, and that money could be used to shore up the pension funds.

The Legislature has skipped or delayed pension payments in six times since 2001, in budgets written by Democrats and Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had asked legislative leaders to come  up with a budget that doesn't skip the pension payment, which Republicans favor but Democrats oppose, and also doesn't delay a $330 million payment to schools by shifting it from the end of this biennium to the first day of the next. Democrats favor that approach but Republicans call it unsustainable budgeting.

The new budget proposal doesn't do that. It also calls for the state to spend $780,000 to set up 10 charter schools, while cutting $1.5 million Democrats proposed for “collaborative schools”.  Charter schools, which can be set up by a public school and parents to try new methods and avoid some state requirements, would need new legislation to be passed along with the budget. Collaborative schools, a plan to pair the Education Departments of the state's colleges with troubled schools, has already passed.

Sen. Rodney Tom, another of the three Democrats who voted with Republicans on their Senate budget, is a strong supporter of charter schools. The budget would pay for 10 next year, in “persistently failing schools.” But Gregoire and other Democrats regard charter schools as taking money from the existing schools; the governor proposed the collaborative school program as a way to bring innovation into classrooms without setting up charter schools.

Special Session seems certain

OLYMPIA — Republican leaders of the Legislature said a special session is now a certainty, with the only real question when it will start.

“I don't believe therre's any way for us to get done. There's no physical way,” Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said after a meeting of all four legislative leaders and Gov. Chris Gregoire that was designed to “find a path out of here” on the state's general fund budget.

So, did they find a path? No path, no blueprint,  he said.

Democrats and Republicans have yet to agree on the amount of money they will have to spend, let alone how it will be spent. Republicans said they are holding firm to their belief that the state should not delay by one day a payment of $330 million to the school districts, an accounting maneuver that shifts that amount into the next biennium and frees up money for more programs.

“We're still firm on sticking with our principles,” Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said.

Today is day 59 of the 60-day session, so the regular session can go no longer than midnight tomorrow. A tentative agreement on a budget would only be one step in the process. That budget would have to be printed, introduced in one of the houses as an amendment to one of the two budgets that have already passed. A budget written by House Democrats is currently on hold in the Senate, and a budget written by minority Republicans which picked up support from three Democrats and passed early Saturday morning after a parliamentary maneuver, is now in the House.

One option is to start the special session on Friday to keep any budget talks going. Hewitt and Zarelli said it would be better to start it next Monday or Tuesday, giving most legislators the weekend with their families and a “cooling off period.”

“Some folks need a few days to ponder,” Zarelli said.

Before leaving on Thursday the Legislature might pass a separate Transportation Budget that covers road, bridge and ferry projects. But it probably will not pass a Capital Budget, which covers other big construction projects like the construction of the medical sciences building in Spokane.

“The capital budget and the operating budget go together,” Zarelli said.

State of State: GOP skeptical on oil fee

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to place a $1.50 per barrel fee on oil produced in Washington state got a cold reception from Republican leaders.

Speaking at a press conference after the State of the State address and Republican response, House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said it could create construction jobs, but it would also hurt consumer and raise the cost of doing business in Washington.

Senate GOP budget leader Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield also questioned whether it is truly a fee, as Gregoire says, or a tax. As proposed, it seems to have no constitutional protection, as the gasoline tax does, that would require it to be spent only on road projects, he said.

The question of tax or fee is an important one, because a fee can be passed with a simple majority, which Democrats have in both chambers. A tax must be passed with a two-thirds majority in both houses, which has proved unattainable in recent years.

Republicans said they would raise that question in the Senate with Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who presides over the chamber and rules on that issue.

What’s the state wholesale liquor system worth?

OLYMPIA – Washington officials are trying to come up with a way to decide whether it makes good economic sense to let someone else run wholesale liquor operations in the state.

About the time they’re ready to make that decision, the voters might take it out of their hands, and turn all liquor operations – wholesale, distribution and retail sales – over to private businesses.

But if voters reject Initiative 1183 in November, the state could still turn its warehousing and distribution system over to the highest bidder next year. Then the question becomes, how do state officials decide the best deal for the state?

A special committee formed by the Legislature wrestled with a way to answer that question Tuesday ….

To read the rest of this story, click here to go inside the blog.

Revenue outlook a little worse; Budget reserve outlook even more so

OLYMPIA – The state’s most likely revenue outlook for the next two years dropped slightly Wednesday as the state’s chief economist revised his projections down about $183 million because of what he calls a “soft patch” in the recovery.

The state should collect $31.603 billion in its general fund to spend on a wide array of programs, services and salaries, Arun Raha said, or about sixth-tenths of 1 percent less than the revenue projected in March…

To read the rest of this item, or to comment, click here to go inside the blog.

WA Lege Day 61: Bill to reject state employee contracts “does not make sense” — Brown

OLYMPIA — A Senate proposal that would result in the Legislature rejecting contracts negotiated between the governor's office and state employees' unions will likely face opposition from Democratic leaders in that chamber.

“It does not make sense to me,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said of the proposal. “I think it's a distraction from the bigger problems we have.”

SB 5870, introduced this week, would essentially refuse to provide the funds needed for the contracts that have been negotiated and “encourage the parties … to reconven to reach an agreement that takes into account the Legislature's concerns and better recognizes the state's fiscal situation.” It was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, but no hearing has been scheduled.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said it is simply an attempt to get new contracts in light of the state's declining revenue picture.

“It's not Wisconsin. It doesn't eliminate collective bargaining,” he said, referring to the controversy in that Midwestern state over a bill recently passed by Republicans that did strip many bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees. 

Brown said, however, state employees have already agreed to lower wages, furloughs and higher benefit costs, as well as staff reductions from the closure of state facilities. To arguments by some Republicans that state workers have better pay and benefits than their counterparts in private industry, Brown countered that the studies are mixed: “I don't know there's really clear evidence of that.”

But the bill could wind up costing the state more money, she said. It would force contract negotiations to resume, but there's no guarantee when an agreement would be reached. That could mean the existing contract, with higher pay and benefits, would remain in place for the first year of the biennium, she said.

WA Lege Day 24: No welfare money for strip clubs or guns?

OLYMPIA – Welfare recipients wouldn’t be able to use their benefits cards at strip clubs, tattoo parlors or taverns, if the Legislature passes bills like those considered Thursday by a Senate panel.

The cards, known as EBTs for Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, couldn’t be used for guns or body piercings, booze or cigarettes, lottery tickets or casino ATMs.

Recipients would be barred buying things clearly not for children when spending money from the state’s biggest welfare program – formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF – under proposals considered Thursday by the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee.

The panel got no objections about blocking such payments from Susan Dreyfus, head of the state’s giant welfare agency the Department of Social and Health Services. The state already bars their use for gambling and lottery tickets. The real question was the best way  to prevent such use with the cards, and to crack down on fraud and abuse.
  

Thumbs down, thumbs up on Gregoire budget

OLYMPIA — Reaction to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget was swift Wednesday as some of her normal alliles is social service groups and progressive circles denounced it while Republicans gave it qualified favorable reviews.

Fellow Democrats tried to praise her for the effort of compiling a budget that cut $4.6 billion over two years with committing to any of it.

State workers represented by Service Employees International Union, who care for seniors and the developmentally disabled, gathered outside the governor’s office to protest the cuts to key social service programs. They clustered around the exits to the office with empty wheel chairs in which they placed signs predicting the kinds of injuries and problems patients could suffer because of the cuts.

Karen Washington, who works for Chesterfield Services home care in Spokane, said workers who are already struggling to make ends meet, will have their wages and benefits cut, too. In the end, many patients who are able to remain in their homes or with family because of state services will wind up in more expensive settings like nursing homes and hospitals because of the cuts, she said.

Asking the sick and disabled to shoulder so much of the state’s budget problems “is not only not fair, it’s immoral,” Washington said.

Read more reaction inside the blog.


 

Gov, legis leaders huddling

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire and top lesgislative leaders are meeting behind closed doors this afternoon, looking at ways to cut the state’s budget.

Some leaders are here in Olympia, while a few like Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Minority Leader Mike Hewitt are on conference call.

Gregoire has said she wants some agreements on what to cut before she’ll bring the Legislature back for a special session to avoid days or even weeks of little activity before the final votes. Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, argued before the meeting however that she should just call them in and let public pressure keep them to on a short course.

Zarelli also released Senate Republicans’ proposals for cutting the budget. A comparison with the list suggested by Gregoire last week shows some similarities. Both would:

Tap about $205 million in federal funds for education.

Cut about $55 million by eliminating the Disability Lifeline program, which was formerly known as General Assistance/Unemployable, which are payments to some state residents who are disabled and can’t find work.

Cut about $54 million out of the Department of Corrections through staff reductions and program and prison consolidation. McNeil Island’s prison facility would be closed.

Cut about $26 million from the state’s Basic Health plan.

Make changes to the state’s levy equalization system, saving about $18 million under Gregoire’s plan and $21 million under the Senate Rs plan.

But there are some differences. Gregoire would eliminate the K-4 enhancement program, which provides smaller class sizes in the lower grades, and save $81.5 million. Senate Rs would eliminate all day kindergarten, for a savings of $22.6 million, plus eliminate or reduce some bilingual education programs. 

Senate Rs also would put a five-year limit on some welfare programs, and terminate some programs for immigrants and undocumented residents.

House Republicans said they’ll release their proposals after the meeting.

GOP to gov: Get agreement before spec session

OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans want Gov. Chris Gregoire to call the Legislature’s leadership and budget heads together before any special session and get an agreement on what should be cut.

In a letter today to Gregoire, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt and GOP Senate Budget Committee Leader Joe Zarelli, said a pre-session meeting that would “develop a general framework for possible cost savings before the full Legislature is brought back to Olympia” would be extremely valuable.

Such an agreement could result in changes that would help reduce the budgets in the next two biennia, which also are projected to be in the red, and would increase the likelihood of a “short and efficient session.”

Gregoire’s office said she’s travelling today and hasn’t had a chance yet to see it. But the governor has repeatedly said she wouldn’t call the Lege back unless she could get an agreement that they’d get in, get business done and get out in a day or two. So Hewitt and Zarelli’s letter seems in line with that.

The Republican leaders couldn’t resist a little “we told ya so” in their letter. The state’s budget problem is a result of assuming the federal government would provide an extra $480 million in higher Medicaid money, and that money is now in doubt as Congress struggles to pass anything that could add to the deficit.

“At the time the budget was written, members of our caucus warned against depending upone one-time moneys and assumed federal payouts to balance the budget. Unfortunately, it appears that our worst fears may be played out over the next few months and our state budget may be plunged into an instant deficit,” they wrote.

Supplemental budget signed (most of it, anyway)

Gov. Chris Gregoire shakes hands with House Budget Chairwoman Kelli Linville and offers Linville the ceremonial pen after signing the supplemental budget.

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a new spending plan Tuesday designed to close an estimated $2.8 billion gap in the state’s operating budget with what she said were a “fair mix” of cutting staff and programs, taking federal money and raising taxes.
Before the ink was dry, the Republicans’ top budget expert criticized it as relying on taxes rather than needed government reforms, and an analyst for a conservative think tank said the state was placing too much trust in Congress to come through with money for medical programs.
The budget, technically a revision for the fiscal biennium that runs through June 2011, closes or shrinks five state institutions, including the Pine Lodge Correctional Center for Women in Medical Lake.
Gregoire used the veto pen to remove some sections, including an exemption from increased liquor charges the Legislature approved for restaurants and bars, a commission to study public school district consolidations and legislative demands that various state agencies produce reports.

WA Lege Day 54: Tax package out of committee

OLYMPIA – Despite warnings of wrath from voters in November, Senate Democrats moved a step closer to a vote on some $890 million in tax increases to fix the state’s budget hole.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee approved 12-10 a three-year increase in the sales tax and a series of changes to tax laws and loopholes designed to help fix a projected operating budget shortfall of $2.8 billion. They also are proposing cutting about $829 million in programs and using federal funds or transferring money out of other accounts to cover the rest.

The 21-part tax package would extend the sales tax to bottled water, cut exemptions for some equipment on wind and solar energy, raise the business and occupation tax on service businesses and raise taxes on out-of-state firms with representatives who sell directly to Washington customers.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the full Senate could debate the tax plan as early as today.

It does not include a recent proposal to ask voters in November if they want to cut back on the sales tax in favor of an income tax on people who make more than $200,000 a year. That could come up in a separate bill before the Legislature adjourns Thursday – if it can gather enough support, Brown said.

“There’s time (to pass the income tax bill) but there has to be willingness in both houses. On that, I’m not sure,” she said.

For almost every part of the 21-point tax package, Republicans offered amendments to strip or pare back a new tax or restore an exemption, then had separate amendments to put each tax change on the November ballot for an advisory vote.

“I think it is important to let people know who is doing what to whom,” Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said in asking for an advisory vote on changes to rules that establish when an out-of-state company is subject to Washington taxes.

At one point, the arguments became so repetitive that Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, merely said “Same speech, Madame Chair.” Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, ordered a vote, which got the same result, and the amendment failed.

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About this blog

Jim Camden is a veteran political reporter for The Spokesman-Review.


Jonathan Brunt is an enterprise reporter for The Spokesman-Review.


Kip Hill is a general assignments reporter for The Spokesman-Review.

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