March 6, 2012 in City

Special session now looms

House, Senate running out of time to agree on budget
By The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – The Legislature seemed headed for a special session Monday as leaders of both parties agreed it will be all but impossible in the time remaining to negotiate a compromise between very different spending plans passed by the House and Senate.

Thursday is the scheduled end of the regular 60-day session. In the remaining time, legislative budget leaders would have to schedule meetings and find some middle ground between a budget that passed the House solely with Democratic votes and a budget that passed the Senate with all 22 Republican and three Democratic votes. They’d also have to print that budget and pass it in both chambers.

“There’s no way to get done by Thursday. Processwise, it’s not workable,” said state Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. Budget experts in both chambers and both parties agreed.

The remaining 24 Senate Democrats are very much opposed to both the content of the Senate budget and the way it was introduced and passed in that chamber without a public hearing through a surprise parliamentary maneuver Friday.

“I don’t get the timing … unless it was to say ‘Take that, Democrats,’ ” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

Republicans could have introduced their budget at a Ways and Means Committee hearing Saturday, she said. Two Democrats who voted with Republicans in the marathon session Friday night are on that committee, so that would have blocked the Democratic budget, and Republicans could have either tried to vote their budget out of committee or discussed compromises on different spending cuts and revenue options, she said.

That would have been more in line with bipartisan work on budgets common in the Senate last year, she said.

Leading Senate Republicans contended that bipartisan budget discussions broke down in mid-February after the latest revenue forecasts showed state revenue and expense projections improving. But Democrats hadn’t found the votes they need for their budget by Friday, so Republicans produced one that addressed “sustainability,” which some Democrats also said they wanted.

“It was a war of who was going to get to 25 votes,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. Republicans won and “I think the ball is rolling.”

He sent a letter to House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, on Monday afternoon calling for negotiations among the top Democrats and Republicans on the two chambers’ ways and means committees, and talked with Gov. Chris Gregoire, who must sign whatever comes out of those negotiations and passes the Legislature.

To find a compromise, Zarelli said Republicans want certain principles, including a certain level for the reserve fund, spending only as much as revenue forecasts say will be available, and not using an accounting maneuver that delays a $330 million payment to school districts by one day, shifting it into the next biennium. After that, negotiators can agree “on the stuff we’re going to spend money on,” he said.

That $330 million, known as the apportionment payment, is a major bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans. By delaying it a day, Democrats say they avoid deep cuts to schools, colleges and social programs that are in the Senate Republican budget. Republicans say it’s fiscally irresponsible and makes the budget “unsustainable.”

But Brown countered that Senate Democrats proposed making the shift permanent, so school districts would be able to fit that into their budgets. Republicans approved it last year and have different accounting shifts in their budget, so “I’m not getting why the (apportionment) shift is the big deal.”

If Republicans make it a non-negotiable demand, they’ll have to be willing to compromise on things like closing some tax exemptions to increase revenue, said Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

“If people start drawing lines in the sand, we won’t get out of here,” Murray said.

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