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Panel to tackle state tax impasse

Fri., March 26, 2010, midnight

Democrats will have four of six members

OLYMPIA – In an effort to break a logjam over which taxes to raise, the Washington Legislature will set up a conference committee with three members from each chamber to try to find a compromise.

The Senate rejected the House of Representatives’ rewrite of the tax package Thursday and agreed to set up the committee. Senate Democrats named Margarita Prentice of Renton and Ed Murray of Seattle; Republicans named Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield.

The House is in “pro forma” session through Friday, and most members aren’t at the Capitol, so it’s likely the other half of the committee won’t be appointed or meetings started before next week.

The committee would have public meetings to unveil any proposals, although negotiations still take place in private. At least four members must agree to a proposal, which must be available for public review for 24 hours before a vote.

Democrats still have the upper hand in any agreement because they hold four seats. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla said the process is really just for show and the GOP likely won’t have any input.

The state faces a projected $2.8 billion gap between revenue and expenses in the general fund budget approved last year. As part of the plan to close that gap, House and Senate Democrats have agreed to raise taxes by about $800 million; they’ll take money from various reserves and the federal government for some of the remainder, and make cuts to staff or services for the rest.

But the divide between House Democrats and Senate Democrats over which taxes to raise remains. Murray said the Senate doesn’t have 25 votes for the mix of tax increases in the House tax package, and the House doesn’t have 50 votes to raise the sales tax by two-tenths of 1 percent, which a bare majority of the Senate passed.

Thursday was Day 11 of the special session. Gov. Chris Gregoire, who called the overtime session with instructions it be completed in seven days, applauded the decision to set up the conference committee.

“It’s time for them to sit down at a table and look each other in the eye,” said Gregoire, adding she was waiting to sign bills that don’t have money in both chambers’ budget proposals. If they don’t work out the differences, she said she’ll have to veto those bills next week because funding is in question.

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