What could be the Legislature’s final act in this special session starts today.
House Democrats are expected to lay out their budget plan, one framed with the help of Senate Democrats who last month lost three “roadkill” members who sided with Republicans. The loss of majority control cost the Democrats the ability to impose their will on the GOP and their budget on Washington citizens.
That was a good thing because it derailed a plan to roll more than $330 million in school payments into the next biennium.
But the Republican plan had its defects as well, particularly the proposal to skip a $140 million payment into the state pension plans. That would increase future state obligations, which the party planned to offset with reforms that would eventually save the state more money.
Washington has a near $1 billion deficit for the remainder of this two-year budget cycle, in which spending will total about $30 billion. Exactly how much red ink remains depends on one’s optimism about a sustained economic recovery.
The differences between the Senate GOP and House Democratic versions of the budget boil down to about $200 million, a gap miraculously closed by delaying sales tax distributions to local governments. If that sounds like a gimmick, it’s one of several that states with AAA credit ratings use, and it has the support of Treasurer James McIntire.
But Republicans have insisted on other reforms, and the House plan does not give them all they want.
Instead of a constitutional amendment requiring a budget balanced over four years, for example, the House Democrats offer a diluted two-year plan that barely – if at all – moves the state beyond what is already in place.
The House bill eliminates some of the inequities in K-12 health insurance programs around the state but falls short of the better GOP plan for consolidating all the plans into one.
Some pension reforms are included, notably a rollback of an early retirement option introduced in 2007. Again, the Republican plan goes further.
House Democrats will hold hearings today on their package of nine bills, plus their reformulated budget. Even the modest compromises some represent may be too much for some liberal Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said some components will need a few House Republican “yeas” to backfill for expected Democrat “nays.” In the Senate, the measures could be blocked in committee if Republicans choose not to deal, she said.
At least the proposals and counterproposals will be public – as they should be – and all members of the Legislature will be engaged in the process after weeks of leaving the burden with the leadership.
We have favored the stronger Republican budget and pension reforms but not every cut they proposed in the safety net programs. With time short for this session, and another too awful to consider, both parties must make the hard choices that can become the foundation for future budget stability.