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Clock ticks on budget talk

Wed., March 7, 2012

Business lobby urges avoidance of special session

OLYMPIA – As groups around the state called for compromise and activists staged a sit-in in a Republican senator’s office, Gov. Chris Gregoire held out hope the Legislature could reach a budget deal by midnight Thursday and avoid a special session.

“I will fight to the end to get out of here on time,” Gregoire told reporters Tuesday morning. “I’m not interested in a special session.”

After saying that would be difficult if there’s “no significant movement by the end of the day,” Gregoire talked with legislators by phone and in person in a shuttle diplomacy to narrow differences between two budgets. But by evening, her office said she’d left for a previous commitment and they would have “no further updates.”

While Gregoire said she still has hopes the Legislature could reach a compromise between two very different spending plans passed by the House and Senate, members of both chambers said that became unlikely over the weekend, and gets closer to impossible as each hour ticks by.

There were no obvious signs an agreement between the two budgets could be struck, and no formal negotiations to break the budget logjam were announced.

Five people – three of them from the Spokane area – protested the budget passed over the weekend with the support of all the Senate’s Republicans and three Democrats. Sitting down in the office of the budget’s author, Sen. Joe Zarelli, they chanted “we shall not be moved” and refused to leave unless Zarelli met with them; the problem was that Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, was across the street in the State Capitol because the Senate was in session.

About 60 supporters gathered in the hallway to cheer them on, chanting “Money for health and education, not for banks and corporations” and “You cut, we bleed.” Jill Reese of the Community Action Network, which organized the protest, said the group would be much happier with the House Democrats’ budget, which has fewer cuts.

Eventually the crowd in the hallway went outside to continue their chanting. The Washington State Patrol warned the protesters they would be removed if they didn’t leave on their own.

When they didn’t, they were escorted out and cited, but not jailed.

The Association of Washington Business, meanwhile, called for the Legislature to come up with a budget that “can be sustained by the tax revenues it can collect,” and do it without the need for a special session. It didn’t offer any suggestions on what such a budget would look like.

Legislators and the governor don’t just have to agree on which programs to cut, which to eliminate and which to keep whole. They have to agree on how much money they can spend, and whether some payments can be shifted through accounting changes or pension revisions.

Gregoire said there are things she’ll push for but she doesn’t know what a workable compromise is yet: “I’ll know it when I see it.”

She said she’s not interested in one solution that has been suggested by some legislators: Forget about a revised budget and give her extra flexibility to cut programs or agencies. Under current law, a governor can only make across-the-board cuts for all agencies to avoid a deficit.

Although Gregoire has asked for expanded authority to handle budget problems for several years, she said that’s not the solution for this budget problem. “They have to pass a budget.”


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