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Washington legislators see special session as likely

Wed., March 10, 2010, 5:22 p.m.

OLYMPIA – The Legislature prepared to go into extra innings Wednesday as consensus on addressing the state’s $2.8 billion budget gap remained elusive and the ability to turn any agreement into reality became physically impossible.

The 60-day session is due to end today – at the stroke of midnight, if working that late would finish the job. But as the hours ticked away Wednesday, Democrats who control the House and Senate remained unable to reach agreement on how much to spend, cut, tax and leave in reserve in the state’s general fund budget.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Chris Gregoire said a decision on how to call the session, and when it would start, would be made Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she expected the governor would call it, and Brown hoped to start back up as early as Friday, with budget negotiations by leadership but no floor votes over the weekend.

Although a session called by the governor can last 30 days and cover any topic, Brown said she hoped it would be shorter and focused on the budget.

It will be the first overtime period needed to finish work of a regular session since 2003, when the budget wasn’t finished in 105 days. Then-Gov. Gary Locke gave legislators a few weeks to cool off, then called them back for the first of three special sessions that year.

A one-day special session was called in 2007 to reinstate a property tax limit thrown out by the state Supreme Court.

Each day will cost an extra $18,300 for staff pay and legislator per diems, a slight decrease from the cost during the regular session because of some reductions in staff.

Republicans on Wednesday crafted a bill that would strip all legislators of their $90 per diems during the special session. Democrats suggested that was unconstitutional grandstanding – a new bill can’t be introduced in the last 10 days of a regular session without a two-thirds vote of both houses. Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, said Republicans didn’t need legislation to voluntarily refuse their per diem, which he said he planned to do for the special session.

Despite sizeable majorities in both chambers, Democrats have been split between those who want a general tax increase, such as a temporary hike in the sales tax, and those who want to cobble together a “menu” of smaller tax increases, such as a sales tax on bottled water and candy or higher business taxes for some professions or industries.

Democratic leaders said they are struggling to find a balanced approach that can deal with a state budget hammered by the worst economy since the Great Depression. But while they tried to find common ground in the different tax packages, Republican leaders contended disorganization by the majority led to the need for overtime.

“This is the most chaotic session I’ve ever seen,” Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said. “I hope I never see another one.”

Republicans pointed to a series of time-eating decisions or miscues, including the need for the Senate to vote three times on legislation to suspend Initiative 960, which required a supermajority to raise taxes, and a decision to hold a hearing on short notice on a bill that would have swapped a portion of the state sales tax for an income tax on persons making more than $200,000 a year.

Each chamber passed a tax plan with tiny majorities — the bare minimum of 25 in the Senate and just two greater than that, 52, in the House. Last weekend, the Senate had to delay the tax vote for a day because one of their members who was voting for the bill was absent to attend a family funeral.

“Several Democrats are feeling the wind at their fronts instead of their backs and they’re afraid to take the vote,” Hewitt said.

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