OLYMPIA – Washington’s regular session will likely end not with a bang but a whisper on Sunday, and a special session to work toward a compromise on the 2017-19 budget is expected to begin Monday.
With Republicans and Democrats at a virtual standstill over when negotiations on that budget will begin, Gov. Jay Inslee said he expects to finalize the schedule for a special session and announce it Friday.
But consensus among lawmakers was that they would finish whatever bills they couldby Friday, and most will go home. A skeleton crew will show up Saturday and Sunday, Days 104 and 105, for non-voting sessions, and the 2017 regular session will come to a quiet close. The special session likely will start on Monday, although most legislators won’t be in Olympia then, either.
The group negotiating policies for public schools, to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s order, will probably meet daily. But there’s no schedule yet for formal negotiations for the state’s operating budget, a spending plan of at least $43 billion that covers most state programs and salaries.
Before lawmakers can go home for good, they must pass a compromise operating budget in both chambers that can be signed by the governor. Without a budget by June 30, the state faces a partial government shutdown.
The lack of formal negotiations drew fire from Democratic leaders at their weekly press conference Thursday morning, and from Inslee about an hour later when he fielded questions from reporters after the day’s bill signings. Both discounted a Republican demand that House Democrats pass the taxes connected to their budget proposal as a precondition to budget negotiations.
“The key thing is that we actually need to start budget negotiations,” Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said. “The only votes that count are the ones that give us a go-home, middle-of-the-road, compromise budget.”
Inslee said he would encourage Republicans to give up their precondition and start negotiations with Democrats. With control of the Legislature split between Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House, both sides will have to find a compromise that solves the state’s public education problems, he added.
“The kids can’t eat votes in the Legislature. They need a budget,” Inslee said.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, insisted Republicans were not stonewalling on the budget. Education policies, and the amount of money needed to pay for them, should be settled before formal budget negotiations begin, he said. Some 53 percent of the Senate budget goes to education, and a change in school policies or programs could have a big impact on the overall budget.