OLYMPIA – There are signs that the ice dam that is the Washington Legislature may be starting to melt after the glaciation of the regular and first special sessions.
Such deep freezes are normally hard to sustain in the Capitol, in part because there are things that must be done, like passing a budget so the state can spend the money taxpayers are paying, and in part because there is usually a significant amount of hot air trapped under the dome.
The most promising sign of sub-domal warming was last week’s passage of a change in the estate tax law, which had developed what some called a “technical glitch” allowing some married couples to escape taxes after both spouses died and passed on their $2 million-plus estates to heirs. Clearly not the intent of legislators who passed the law in 2005, and the nearly 1.3 million voters who gave the tax a big thumbs-up in 2006, but a problem confirmed by the state Supreme Court. Early this year it handed down the latest of a series of “uh-oh” rulings to hit the state in the treasury.
The Legislature managed to pass a law fixing the “glitch” and get it to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature less than eight hours before a batch of refunds was set to be mailed out. It was a process that showed at times how badly the whole process could grind to a halt, as the rank and file waited hours to learn what other bill the primarily Republican coalition that controls the Senate would request in exchange for letting the “death tax” come to a vote in that chamber.
When one is going to demand a ransom, it is usually good planning to know what ransom one wants to demand.
But the day also showed how fast the Legislature can move when the two chambers begin to approach harmonic convergence, or at least a shotgun wedding. The bill that “ransomed” the estate tax fix was a change in the Model Toxics Control Act that was so well received it passed with easy margins, getting votes from business conservatives and environmental liberals in both chambers. The Senate then passed the estate tax fix, and the official signings by legislative leaders and Inslee probably couldn’t have gone faster if Usain Bolt were carrying the paper.
The next day, Senate majority coalition leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, sounded several notches past cautiously optimistic that a budget deal could be hammered out in the next week or so. Members of his caucus could be willing to give up some of the policy reforms they’d passed in the closing days of the first special session, he said, such as a proposal that would allow principals to reject teachers assigned to their schools and spending limits on non-education programs.
They’d hold the line on adding at least $1 billion to the public school budget without tax increases, but a good revenue forecast this week coupled with the $160 million from the estate tax fix might make up much of the difference with the House budget, which has about $700 million extra for schools, he suggested, and allow the Legislature to deliver a budget without further taxes.
They’re holding firm on changes to the workers’ compensation system, which could be the biggest stumbling block to a deal.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said Friday those changes don’t have a direct connection to the budget and there’s no agreement in the House to take them up. With the new fiscal year, and a possible fiscal cliff, looming on July 1, the Legislature needs to focus only on the budget and the bills needed to make it work, and workers’ comp has no such tie-in, he said.
Sullivan also doubts that the math for getting to $1 billion in public school funding without changing some tax preferences is not as easy as Tom suggests. The House would have to agree to cuts to social programs, for things like child nutrition programs and aid to the homeless, many of whom are children. If Senate Republicans are concerned about an “opportunity gap” – a much-used term in education this session that means “poor kids tend to do worse in school” – cutting programs that help provide opportunities isn’t going to close the gap, he said.
While that sounds as though the two sides are far apart, they may at least be getting closer. At the end of the regular session, Inslee described them as light years apart. They might now at least be on the same planet.