OLYMPIA – For the fourth time in as many years, the Legislature will go into overtime to figure out how to spend the money it collects, and how much it should collect.
Gov. Jay Inslee said he wants budget negotiators to stay in Olympia to continue working on the state’s two-year spending plan. The remainder of the legislators will return for a special session that begins May 13. It can go up to 30 days and cover issues beyond the budget.
Inslee said all sides need to be flexible on budget negotiations and other issues that may come up, but he seemed to be drawing a line in the sand that would require fewer cuts and at least some extra revenue from closing or shrinking some tax preferences.
“We will not balance that (budget) on the backs of seniors, homeless kids and the disabled,” he said.
Senate Republicans said they would have preferred to start the special session today, without any break. Their members all want to be involved in discussions about programs and policies, Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said, and have different expertise on the intricacies of the budget. And they continue to oppose tax increases, he added.
Inslee wants legislators to also handle issues involving abortion, gun control and immigration, which have been blocked in the Senate. Republicans may have some issues that Inslee opposes that they will introduce, although “we haven’t had that discussion yet,” Schoesler said.
Special sessions have become commonplace for Washington’s lawmakers, with half the years since 2000 requiring they extend their stays in Olympia to resolve the budget and other matters. There was a string of years, from 2004 through 2009, when they left on time.
“And then the recession hit,” Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said Sunday afternoon as he looked at a list of when sessions started and ended on the Legislature’s website.
The state’s economic forecasts started projecting gaps between expected revenues and scheduled spending in late 2008, and the Legislature faced tough choices of cutting programs or raising taxes. This year, state economists project an extra $2 billion will come into the state in the two-year budget cycle starting July 1.
But that’s not enough to continue all programs at their current level and add at least $1 billion in public school spending to meet a state Supreme Court ruling that more needs to be done to meet a constitutional mandate for education.
The Senate passed a $33.2 billion budget that includes an extra $1 billion for public schools but no new taxes and relies on some accounting maneuvers and cuts to some noneducation programs. It received a bipartisan vote, but many Democrats said they weren’t endorsing the cuts, just agreeing to move the process forward and expecting a budget to come back from the House with some tax increases and fewer cuts.
The House agreed, approving a $34.5 billion budget that ended or shrank tax preferences for some businesses, and continuing a boost in taxes to some professional services that was imposed in 2010 as a temporary tax. Inslee had proposed some of the same tax changes.
But Senate Republicans balked, saying they were standing fast on a promise to pass a budget without tax increases. The operating budget stalemate carried through Sunday, the final day of the 105-day session.
“The parties are not miles apart at the moment, they are light-years apart,” Inslee said at a post-adjournment news conference to announce the timing of the special session.
The Legislature did, however, reach agreement on one of its other budgets, an $8.8 billion spending plan for transportation projects over the next two years. It has money for roads, bridges, ferries, mass transit and railroads, as well as the Washington State Patrol and the state Department of Transportation.
It has projects all over the state, including $96.7 million in Spokane County. In that total is $68 million for the North Spokane Corridor, $5.3 million for improvements to the Interstate 90 corridor and $1.6 million for the West Plains Transit Center.
Legislators also passed a bill that might allow them to complete their work on time in the future. They write their two-year budget in odd-numbered years and wait until the economic forecast is released in mid-March to determine how much money they will have to spend. The bill moves that forecast to mid-February, giving them an extra month to work on budget numbers.
They also gave final approval to a bill that will allow residents to see how much money is spent on transportation and capital construction projects in their legislative district on an easier-to-use website.
But the transportation budget approved Sunday was described by members of both parties in both houses as “bare bones.” It keeps existing projects on track but doesn’t address what is estimated to be more than $8 billion in new projects for the state.
Inslee wants legislators to tackle those new projects, which could require increases in the gasoline tax as well as higher vehicle fees, in the special session. But he also wants the package to include money for the Columbia River Crossing bridge between Vancouver and Portland, which is anathema to many Senate Republicans.