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Search for budget deal continues on last day

OLYMPIA — Legislative leaders and the top budget writers once again huddled with Gov. Chris Gregoire this morning, continuing the search for an agreement on the state’s operating budgets and reform issues connected to it.

Because this is the last day of the special session, any agreement they might reach must be printed and passed by both houses of the Legislature before midnight.

Leaders of the two parties in the two chambers, as well as the budget writers continued their marathon meetings with Gregoire around 10:10 this morning. The last participant, Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, ranking Republican on Senate Ways and Means, arrived a few minutes after everyone else, reportedly because he’d been huddling with committee staff.

Prognostications for an deal ranged from the very optimistic — members in both chambers were advised to be ready to work until midnight — to the very pessimistic by those who question how it is physically possible to produce the needed legislation, should an agreement be reached, in the time remaining.

Years ago, legislators could fudge the end of a session, by stopping or covering the clock, and go past midnight on the final day to push through a bill or two. With computers and automatic time stamps, that’s not really possible any more, legislative staff said. When the clock strikes midnight, the special session is over. The question then becomes, what’s left undone, and will there be another special session — the third since Thanksgiving — to address it.

One sign of an alternate plan: A bill was introduced in the Senate giving the governor discretionary authority on what to cut in the operating budget to close the estimated gap of more than $1 billion between projected revenue and scheduled expenses. Under current law, a governor can only cut across the board, so all programs suffer equally.