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No agreement on final state budgets

Legislature ends Friday; special session likely

OLYMPIA – The Legislature is expected to adjourn its regular session Friday afternoon without passing final budgets for general operating expenses, transportation or capital projects.

It will return, but when and for how long state officials couldn’t predict Wednesday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she’s reluctant to call legislators back for a special session unless they are close to agreement on the budgets – particularly the $32 billion general operating budget that covers most agencies and programs for the 2011-’13 biennium – and the changes to existing laws needed to make an eventual compromise work.

“They agree on probably about 95 percent” of the operating budget, she said Wednesday. “But the 5 percent is not insignificant.”

Most of the differences involve different levels of spending on education and social programs, she said. “Do you want to cut education to pay for social services or do you cut social services to pay for education?”

The state constitution allows a governor to call a special session for 30 days. The Legislature doesn’t have to use all that time, but a governor can’t order them to take less. Gregoire is still unhappy that the special session she called to solve budget problems in 2010 lasted the full 30 days rather than the week she expected.

She wants an agreement that the special session this year will deal exclusively with the budgets and the bills necessary to make them work. But that could be more than 60 separate pieces of legislation, including a controversial proposal to change the state’s workers’ compensation system to allow for voluntary settlements of claims.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, has said she would prefer that legislators take Easter weekend off and return the beginning of next week.

Republican leaders are split. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said Wednesday he thought the full Legislature should return next week, because all members will need to debate the many bills needed to implement the budgets.

House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said he thought legislative leaders and budget negotiators should return first to work out budget deals before the special session starts and all members from both houses come back.

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