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Discover Pass gets boost from marketers

STATE PARKS — Washington's Discover Pass, a vehicle permit required in state parks and other public lands, is getting help from a public relations firm to boost lagging sales.

The pass was created by the Washington Legislature to fund the State Parks System.

A public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, has a $157,500 state contract and a mission to promote social networking is building a new website to encourage visitors to post pictures, videos, stories and recommendations from their trips to Washington's more than 100 state parks.

The contractor's plan involves strategies on everything from Twitter use to greater visibility for Washington State Parks' mascot - tentatively known as Eager Beaver.

According to a story in the Olympian, the agency is involved in another bid process to create a mobile-device app, and is also hiring a marketing coordinator.

The parks agency originally predicted the Discover Pass would raise $32 million a year, most of it dedicated to parks. But it brought in just $11.3 million in its first 10 months which ended in April.

Ilene Frisch, assistant director for administration at the state Parks and Recreation Commission, said the pass is now meeting new, lower projections. Lawmakers are hopeful a change they made this year in response to complaints will help sales. Pass holders are now allowed to transfer their passes to a second car.

Capital budget signed; Baumgartner questions project list

TACOMA – More than $1 billion in construction projects, from storm water runoff systems costing a thousand of dollars to the second half of a medical research facility in Spokane costing some $37 million, were signed into law Monday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the capital projects budget at Tacoma Community College, where the state will spend $39 million for a new Health Career Center. She called it a package of jobs that present “a way out of the recession.”

While Gregoire and other legislators were lauding the list of projects, state Sen. Mike Baumgartner was requesting a study of whether election-year politics helped determine where money went. Districts represented by Democratic senators and Democratic senators facing re-election this year received far more than the state average per district and more than their GOP counterparts, his analysis showed. 

“I voted for the capital budget and it contains many worthwhile projects, but we need to make sure it’s not used for pork barrel projects in election years,” said Baumgartner, a first-term state senator from Spokane’s 6th District.

To read the rest of this post, or to comment, click here to go  inside the blog.


Documents:

Gregoire to sign capital budget today

OLYMPIA — The Capital Projects budget, which contains about $1 billion in new projects around the state, is scheduled to be signed this afternoon by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

For certain segments of the Spokane population, this is the document most watched over and lobbied for during the late regular and special sessions. That's because it contains about $37 million for the second half of construction on the Washington State University-Spokane Biomedical and Health Sciences Building, the project many people just short-hand as “the med school.”

Naturally, that's not the only project in the Capital Budget for the Spokane area. We'll have a more complete list this afternoon, after the gov puts her autograph on the bill.

Murray, Inslee camp slam McKenna over budget

OLYMPIA — A week after the Legislature's overtime session wrapped up, Democrats accused GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna of delaying the final compromise by bringing politics into the process.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, joined members of the campaign for Democratic governor hopeful Jay Inslee to accuse McKenna of using the budget stalemate “for political purposes” to push reform proposals.

A spokesman for the McKenna campaign called the accusations “nonsensical.” McKenna did talk about budget principles he would follow as governor, but “didn't try to inject himself into day-to-day negotiations,” Charles McCray III said.

Murray and the Inslee campaign were merely being “protectors of the status quo,” McCray said. “It's the status quo mentality in Olympia that is the reason it took so long.”

McKenna did support a maneuver by all 22 Republicans and three breakaway Democrats late in the regular session that pushed through an alternative budget. Murray questioned how McKenna, who has called for increased spending on education, could support a budget that cut public schools and colleges.

McKenna later said he “wasn't thrilled” with the education cuts in that alternative budget, which later was revised in the House. At a campaign press conference during the third week of the special session, he said if he'd been involved in discussions over that alternative Senate budget “I would've gone to them and said 'Let's not make the education cuts.'”

At that press conference, McKenna accused Democratic leaders in general, and House Speaker Frank Chopp in particular, of holding up negotiations by refusing to allow votes on reforms.

The partisan lines over the reforms aren't so clear-cut. The original proposal on a four-year balanced budget, a constitutional amendment, came from a Senate Democrat, one of the three who joined Republicans on the budget vote.

Murray said that's a stricter rule than any state in the union has, and “forces you to predict something in the future that is almost unpredictable.” The negotiated settlement over the budget and reforms is a statutory requirement, with some exceptions, for a four-year budget, which would be easier to amend by future Legislatures.

“It took us to bring some common sense to it,” Murray said.

On his website, McKenna details a series of ideas to reform the budget process he would push as governor. But he doesn't mention balancing the budget for four years, rather than the current two years. At his press conference earlier this month, he said he supports a four-year balanced budget but “I don't know if it requires a constitutional amendment.”

Gregoire may veto some spending, will sign reforms

“Everybody has to give. Everybody has to get,” Gov. Chris Gregoire says of the final budget deal.

OLYMPIA — Some state spending that legislators approved shortly before dawn Wednesday as part of a package deal to end the session may not survive the veto pen.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she would sign the major reforms which were part of a negotiated package of legislation that came together in the closing days of one special session and needed a few hours of yet another special session to pass a bleary-eyed Legislature.

That package includes changes to state employees' early retirement system for workers hired after June, an attempt to equalize health insurance plans for public school workers and state employees, and an effort to project out four years to get state spending and revenue to match up.

But legislators stuck special projects into the supplemental budget “at a fevered pitch” in the final discussions, she said, and she's having staff comb through the 280-page document.

“I didn't agree to every dotted “i” and crossed “t” in that budget,” she said. “I'm sure there are things in there that I will veto. I want more in the ending fund balance.”

In her budget proposal, Gregoire called for an ending fund balance, which serves as a cushion against further economic downturns, of about $600 million. The budget passed Wednesday morning has a balance of just over half that, about $320 million. She doesn't have an estimate of how much she might cut, but said there's no way to trim out $300 million.

The reforms that Republicans were demanding in return for a vote on the budget, however, were carefully studied, she said. Those include:

* A change to the early retirement system for new state employees. Any new employee would be able to retire before age 65 after 30 years in state service by accepting a reduction of 5 percent for each year under 65. A 2000 law allows existing workers with 30 years service a 3 percent per year reduction between 65 and 55, and a 2007 law and 2007 allows for full benefits at 62.

* A review of the public school employees' health insurance systems — which vary from district to district — and incentives for the districts to offer plans that are in line with plans available to state employees, including plans with high deductibles and health savings accounts. One of the key elements of that legislation is to encourage districts to offer plans in which family insurance premiums that are no more than three times the cost of an individual's plan.

* Requirements that the Legislature adopt a four-year budget plan, rather than the current two-year plan, for the state General Fund that projects that scheduled expenses won't exceed projected revenues, and provides an ending balance that's in the black. The law also adds the state treasurer to the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, which produces the revenue outlook that becomes key to legislative budgeting.

Those reforms were key to Republicans and some conservative Democrats voting for the budget. For weeks, Republicans demanded reforms before they'd consider any decision on taxes or vote on the budget. Democrats wanted a commitment on searching for more revenue, particularly the closure of a tax exemption for first mortgages written by large, multi-state banks. The stalemate that developed near the end of the regular session carried over into the special session. Last weekend, Gregoire and her staff put together a package that included all elements and began working with legislative leaders and budget experts on a way to make that work.

They ran out of time on Tuesday, and she called another special session, one that legislative leaders agreed would only last until they voted on the package of bills, and told them to stay until it was done.

She denied reports that one side wanted negotiations to fail, and doubted that it could have happened any faster.

In the end, Democrats got a budget very close to what they had proposed in the Senate but couldn't pass because three of their members lined up with the 22 Republicans to pass a different spending plan. The final budget had no cuts to public schools or state colleges, saved the Disability Lifeline and the Basic Health plan. Republicans got the reforms they said were needed to make the budget “sustainable.”

“They all got something critical. They all gave,” she said. Everyone was tired of cutting programs, she added.

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represented GOP Senate leadership in the negotiations, agreed with Gregoire's assessments on negotiations and the final package.

“I think it was a package deal. The governor is exactly right: We're all tired of cuts,” Parlette said.

But Gregoire's comments that she'd have staff  go through the final budget for things she might veto that were added at the last minute struck one government watchdog as odd. Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center questioned why it was alright for the governor to say she didn't have enough time to review the final product when legislators had to vote on it without having time to study it, and the public never saw the final product before it was passed into law.

Special Session 3.0: Senate passes tax bill

OLYMPIA — A plan to end a tax exemption for large banks and extend tax breaks for some other businesses passed the Senate over objections from some of the chambers more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats.

The bill, which removes an exemption for large banks for first mortgages, required a two-thirds majority because it is a tax increase. Some senators tried to split that out from the revised tax exemptions for newspapers, food processing operations and server farms, which by themselves only require a simple majority.

“This is a bad precedent (mixing) tax breaks for some and tax increases for others,” Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, argued. “I assure you this will find its way to the courts.”

But the bill passed 35-10, two votes over the required super majority.

Among Spokane-area senators, Mike Baumgartner and Lisa Brown voted yes, Mike Padden and Mark Schoesler voted no. Bob Morton was excused.

One special session ends, new one starts

Gov. Chris Gregoire orders Legislature into an all-nighter.

OLYMPIA — The Legislature ended one special session at midnight and began a new one as Wednesday began, working to finish work on a deal over budgets and reforms to state government.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was keeping legislators in the Capitol until they finished their work, not allowing them to go home for a few hours sleep and return to work in the morning.

“If I let them go home, the air will go out of the ballon again,” Gregoire told reporters at a news conference to announce the new, one-day special session. “There's only a few hours to get it done.. . No napping.”

Technically, the governor can't call a special session for less than 30 days. But Gregoire said she had an agreement with legislative leaders that the special session would only extend long enough to finish work on bills in an agreement that was reached Tuesday afternoon.

That agreement — which involves the out-of-balance operating budget, the capital construction budget and reforms to pensions, public school employee health insurance and four-year balanced budgets — showed signs of fraying throughout the night. The 282-page operating budget, which is a spending plan for many state programs through June 30, 2013, didn't even arrive on legislator's desks until after midnight.

Asked about the public's reaction to a budget and other legislation that is passed late at night, Gregoire insisted that there were no surprises in any of the bills.

“It isn't as if these issues haven't been vetted,” she said.

Day 30: Bumps in the road to adjournment

OLYMPIA — The road to to adjournment of the special session does not always run smooth.

Voting ground to a halt for a while Tuesday evening as the House waited on the Senate to pass the capital budget and the Senate waited on the House to pass changes to the state pension system.

Ronald Reagan's old phrase: “Trust but verify” could be heard in the wings on both sides of the rotunda.

But a visit by Gov. Chris Gregoire to the leadership offices of both chambers may have restarted the process.

“We're still working it. We're making progress,” Gregoire said as she strode quickly out of Speaker Frank Chopp's office with Majority Leader Lisa Brown at her side.

A few minutes earlier, Senate Democrats seemed convinced that Senate Republicans were about to leave the chamber. But the Republicans were meeting in their caucus room, going over the details of several bills on the list for an upcoming vote. One of their members was upset about something, and made moves to leave for the night, telling at least one colleague “see you next year.”

Benton was gone for a vote or two, but within a half hour was back on the floor and the Senate was voting on parts of the “package”. They approved a modernization of the way the state sends the sales taxes it collects to cities and counties, which provides a one-time boost to the operating budget of about $250 million. That bill, which was a key element of negotiations over the operating budget, has already passed the House and goes to the governor.

The House passed changes to the state pension system, limiting the ability of new hires to retire early with enhanced benefits.

The Senate began debating a change in taxes on “roll-your-own” cigarettes that are bought at machines in commerical establishments. Those cigarettes are currently taxed at a lower rate than a pack of manufactured cigarettes. But that vote was delayed when Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, asked whether it was a new tax which under state law requires a two-thirds majority to become law.

The “roll-your-own” cigarettes bill was set aside and the Senate passed a bill calling for budgets that balance over four years, rather than just two, by an overwhelming 38-9 vote.

Special Session Day 30: Moving toward a deal

OLYMPIA – Legislators slogged through a series of votes Tuesday night that would give the state a balanced budget, pay for nearly $1 billion in government construction projects and implement a series of reforms that could save the state money in the future.
Both chambers were poised to vote on a more than a half-dozen bills, an interconnected package of spending cuts and reforms hammered out in negotiations with Gov. Chris Gregoire as the clock ticked toward a midnight deadline.
They made plans to go into a brief special session if necessary to complete votes on the package, which would change the state’s pension system, revise health insurance programs for public school employees and require budgets that balance over four years rather than two.
  

Special Session Day 30: Budget, other bills headed for votes tonight

OLYMPIA — Legislators expect to vote later tonight on a budget and a package of reforms that have been the subject of negotiations for more than a month.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said agreement has been reached on the budget and  on changes to the state's pension system around early retirement provisions. A proposal for planning a four-year balanced budget instead of the current two years is almost done, and changes to public school employees' health care is also very close.

Those bills must still be printed, brought to one chamber's floor for passage, then moved to the other for passage in the same form.

“We have an agreement to vote,” Brown said. That's not quite the same as an agreement on all sides to pass all the legislation. That remains to be seen, in the voting.

There are questions about whether that can be done by midnight, the end of the special session. If they run out of time, it would be possible for the governor to call another special session with the understanding it was just to finish that work, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla said. It would also be possible for the Legislature to call itself back into special session.

Senate Democrats were called into a caucus at 5:20 p.m. with the admonition: If you want information, we have information.

Special Session Day 30: How many ways to say almost a deal?

OLYMPIA — Legislators appear close to an agreement on a budget fix and several other bills needed to get that budget passed — so close that they are trying out different ways to describe “almost a deal” without sounding too positive after leaving an afternoon meeting with Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield: “We're on the same sheet of music, except some of the notes need to be clarified… It's the little things, the little differences.”

House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis: “It's a framework with some agreements in it…but there are so many moving pieces.”

One legislator described it as trying to juggle eight balls. Asked if that was a good description, DeBolt replied: “It'd be nice if it was only eight.”

Those moving pieces include a revision to the remaining 15 months in the state's current operating budget, which has a gap of about $1 billion between what the state is expected to collect in taxes and what it is scheduled to spend in programs and wages; the state's capital budget, a smaller spending plan for large construction projects, and ancillary questions over the state limit; changes to the state retirement system to close off some early retirement options for new hires; a way to bring the health insurance programs for state school employees in line with the benefits for state workers; and a way to project budgets over four years, instead of the current two years, in a way that prevents spending imbalances like the current one without requiring special sessions for small fluctuations in revenue forecasts.

Special Session: Deal on budget ‘close’

OLYMPIA — A deal to break the budget stalemate is reportedly close, but the real question could be whether there's enough time left in the special session to pass it, should negotiators reach agreement.

Budget negotiators were down to the nitty gritty in the operating budget, known as provisos, in the afternoon while legislative leaders were preparing for yet another meeting with Gov. Chris Gregoire.

“We're getting close,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said after running the gauntlet of television cameras outside the governor's office.

A few minutes earlier in the Senate wings, Brown said Democrats and Republicans seemed close to a “tentative deal” explaining “It's a good sing we're writing budget provisos.”

Provisos are special instructions in a budget that direct spending on particular projects or programs.

But Brown acknowledged that the real problem is the clock. The special session will end at midnight tonight, and there is a question whether there is enough time to write, print and vote on the bills in both houses.

It would require agreement on all sides to waive certain rules that require waits for legislators to examine and propose amendments to bills, and wouldn't allow much time for debate.

Special Session: The Final Day or Final Daze?

OLYMPIA — Stop us if you've heard this one: Legislative leaders and the top budget writers huddled with Gov. Chris Gregoire this morning, looking for an agreement on the state's operating budgets and reform issues connected to it.

OK, so we've written that a few times lately. Here's the new part of it. It's the last day of the special session for them to come up with that agreement, get it printed and passed by both houses of the Legislature.

Leaders of the two parties in the two chambers, as well as the budget writers continued their marathon meetings with Gregoire around 10:10 this morning. Yes, the meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m., and there were some comments about invited guests who were not present, making everyone else wait.

The last participant, Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, ranking Republican on Senate Ways and Means, arrived a few minutes after everyone else, reportedly because he'd been huddling with committee staff.

Prognostications for an deal ranged from the very optimistic — members in both chambers were advised to be ready to work until midnight — to the very pessimistic by those who question how it is physically possible to produce the needed legislation, should an agreement be reached, in the time remaining.

Back in the day, legislators could fudge the end of a session, by stopping or covering the clock, and go past midnight on the final day to push through a bill or two. With computers and automatic time stamps, that's not really possible any more. When the clock strikes midnight, the special session turns into a pumpkin (or some other vegetable, take your pick).

One sign of an alternate plan: A bill was introduced in the Senate giving the governor discretionary authority on what to cut in the operating budget to close the estimated gap of more than $1 billion between projected revenue and scheduled expenses. Under current law, a governor can only cut across-the-board, so all programs suffer equally.

Special Session: Do they have an agreement?

OLYMPIA — Legislative leaders resumed their negotiations with the governor, apparently close to a possible agreement on the budget and surrounding issues.

“We're coming back to see if we've actually got an agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said as leaders of both parties in the two chambers, as well as the top budget writers gathered in the waiting room outside the governor's office.

Words like framework, tentative agreement and possible agreement were all mentioned. “It's all just semantics,” Brown said. After leaving discussions with Gov. Chris Gregoire about 7 p.m., leaders outlined the proposals for a budget and several reforms to their members, testing the waters for support.

If they have enough support among the parties on both chambers, legislators will play “beat the clock” late Monday and throughout Tuesday as they race to beat adjournment of the special session, which must happen by midnight.

They will have to agree on language for bills, which must still be drafted and reviewed, then passed in the exact same form in both chambers. Legislative staff could work through the night, but only if that framework for an agreement turns into solid agreements on key pieces of legislation.

Legislators reportedly have been close on the operating budget itself, leaders said. The real holdups, as has been the case for weeks, are changes to state programs or policies, which some call reforms, that would reduce state expenses in future years. The main reforms involve revising state budget practices so projections for expenses and revenue balance for four years into the future, rather than two; making medical insurance plans for public school employees more like the health care plans for state employees; and revising the state pension systems so new employees will have a less generous system for early retirement. 

Special Session: Do we have a framework?

OLYLMPIA — After meeting for about two hours, legislative leaders left their discussions with the governor to discuss a possible “framework for an agreement”  with their members that could end the stalemate over the budget.

Leaders of both parties from the two chambers circumvented reporters sitting in the governor's waiting room and went up a floor to where most legislators have been waiting throughout the day. The leaders are due back at 8 p.m.

“She's still holding out hope of midnight” to wrap up all business without another special session, Cory Curtis, a spokesman for Gregoire, said.

But that would require an agreement on language for bills, that must still be drafted and reviewed, then passed in the exact same form in both chambers. Legislative staff could work through the night, but only if that framework for an agreement turns into solid agreements on key pieces of legislation.

Legislators are reportedly close on the operating budget itself, leaders said. The real holdups, as has been the case for weeks, are changes to state programs or policies, which some call reforms, that would reduce state expenses in future years. The main reforms involve revising state budget practices so projections for expenses and revenue balance for four years into the future, rather than two; making medical insurance plans for public school employees more like the health care plans for state employees; and revising the state pension systems so new employees will have a less generous system for early retirement. 

Special Session: Talks continue

OLYMPIA — A meeting among legislative leaders, top budget writers and Gov. Chris Gregoire continues into the evening as the group looks for a way to reach agreements on budgets and reforms connected to that spending plan.

Three reforms are reportedly under discussion: a way to plan for balanced budgets for four years, rather than the current two years; changes to public school employees' health benefits that eventually bring them in line with the state employees' system; revisions to state employees' pension plan that would eliminate some early retirement options for new hires.

Different versions of each exist in the House and Senate. With the clock ticking toward a midnight Tuesday adjournment, there's not enough time to keep passing different versions back and forth. Legislators will need to agree to one version of each reform bill, along with a final version of the revised operating budget and a capital budget, and get them passed in the same form by both chambers.

Special Session: Legislative leaders, governor on temporary break

OLYMPIA — A summit between legislative leaders, their top budget writers and Gov. Chris Gregoire took a break about 3:30 p.m., but is scheduled to resume at 4 p.m.

Legislators came out saying they'd been told by Gregoire not to talk about the details of the proposal she's put before them. Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, did say that most of the time is not being spent on the budget, but on a package of reforms tied to the budget.

Those reforms include separate bills that would revise the health insurance system for public school employees, change early retirement options for state employees, and require the Legislature to create a budget that balances not just this biennium, but the next biennium as well.

Special Session: Legislative leaders, governor continue to meet

OLYMPIA — Legislative leaders and their top budget writers were given a proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire that represents her “go-home” proposal, her staff said.

Democrats and Republicans met separately on the proposal — which includes a version of the K-12 insurance reforms, pension reforms and four-year balanced budget requirements — then returned to for another meeting with the governor.

A spokesman for Gregoire said her package was aiming for “a middle ground…one that would not make anyone happy.”

No details on what they are proposing and counterproposing. Anything they work out will have to be shown to the separate caucuses to see if it can pass.

Day 29: Lege leaders huddle with gov

OLYMPIA — Legislative leaders and budget writers of both houses began huddling with the governor about 12:30 p.m., looking for a way to wrap up business before the clock runs out on the special session at midnight tomorrow.

On the plus side, everyone was quite chipper as they passed the time in the governor's waiting room, chatting about things like their Easter weekends.

On the minus side, the math says there's less than 36 hours left to do everything that needs doing — an operating budget, a capital budget, some version of the reform bills circulating.

As Gov. Chris Gregoire came out to motion legislators in, one of the ubiquitous tours of school children filed in to look at the portraits on the wall. Gregoire took the opportunity to greet them and explain what was going on.

Later in the day, she said, legislators might go on the House or Senate floor, “and you'd be able to see something.”

That brought some derisive chuckles from the assembled press corps, which had gathered on the waiting room couches to stake out the meeting and are already bracing for another special session.

“Hey! Hey!” Gregoire admonished the reporters in her sternest teacher tone, then told the students not to pay any attention to crew on the couches.

“We need to see if maybey we can get done with out jobs by midnight tomorrow,” Gregoire told the students as she left to start the meeting.

House Ways and Means Committee's hearing on several reform bills was postponed until 3 p.m. because of the leadership meeting.

Special Session Day 29: Hewitt in the chambers

OLYMPIA — Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt is back in the Senate wings today, less than a week after having surgery to remove a tumor from his chest.

The procedure to remove a tumor from his thymus, a small organ in the chest,  was similar to open-heart surgery in that surgeons had to open his rip cage then tie it back together.

All things considered, the Walla Walla Republican is looking pretty good. A little pale and somewhat thinner, to be sure, but still. His wife Cory is nearby, with a pillow, just in case he has to sneeze or cough. Either one is terribly painful, he said.

He's available for votes, should any be taken.

Last week, during debates over when to schedule budgets and reform bills, Senate Republicans were wary of any move to push legislation to the floor, saying the Democrats could take advantage of Hewitt's absence and generate a 24-24 split over contentious issues that would be settled by Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat. But Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane had said if Republicans got to a point where they needed a 25th vote, she'd cast it for Hewitt.

Hewitt said he'd heard about the offer, but he wasn't going to let that happen.

Now the Senate faces another numeric challenge. Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, is absent. Because he's one of three Democrats who gave Senate Republicans the 25-24 edge on the budget, a budget vote could again stack up as 24-24.

Special Session Day 29: Reform bills in both chambers

OLYMPIA - Less than 48 hours left in the extra special session and both houses expect some work on 'reform' bills.

The House Ways and Means Committee  has a noon hearing on bills that passed the Senate on Saturday: new requirements for community supervision of recently released inmates, a new system to require budgets that balance over four years rather than two, and a major change to the health benefit programs for public school employees.

The Senate may vote on changes to the state pension system that end early retirement options for new state employees. That bill is reportedly a precedent to any Senate vote on the operating budget.

The big questions still remain, however. Will the House pass the 'reform' bills, and will the Senate pass the House budget?

Stay tuned.

Special Session: Lunchtime drama in Senate

OLYMPIA — A bit of drama this afternoon before the Senate broke for lunch, with plans by Democrats to go “at ease” in the afternoon while the Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing on the budget and reform bills connected to it…and possibly come back for votes in the evening or Saturday.

After the motion to go at ease, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, made a motion to recess until Monday. The difference: under the latter, no votes could be taken through the weekend.

Several Republicans had already headed home for the holiday weekend, and Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, is recovering from surgery. Some Republicans were concerned about orders to return to the Senate on Saturday or Sunday to vote on the budget, and with Hewitt missing, even if they all made it back they could face a 24-24 vote, with Democrats holding most of their members but the three breakaway Ds from an early budget vote casting their lot again with the Republicans.

In case of a 24-24 tie, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat, would cast the deciding vote.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown argued passionately against recess. The bills that Republicans had been pushing for could get through the committee and be available for a vote Friday or Saturday, she said. If the Legislature has a chance of getting done by Tuesday, they'll need to move that legislation to the House as quickly as possible.

“This is not about the illness of one member. This is about getting the business of the state done,” Brown, D-Spokane, said. “If necessary, I will personally take Sen. Hewitt's vote on that bill.”

There's no problem with holding the hearing, Schoesler said. But the threat of being called back on Saturday or Sunday is a problem with some members already home with their families.

“The threat of a call of the house with a holy holiday coming is a very serious issue,” he said.

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, said her 94-year-old mother was being baptized as a Catholic on Saturday in Yakima, and “I hope to heck we get to go tomorrow.”  Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said one of her relatives was also being baptized on Saturday. (Note: Catholics traditionally baptize new adult members during their Easter Vigil service.)

Not to be out religious-ed, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said the Democrats two Jewish members had agreed to stay as late as necessary Friday night, which is the beginning of Passover, “willing to forego their very holy day in order to get the business of the state done.”

In the end, Owen ruled that the motion to go in recess came first, took precedence, and called for a vote on that. It passed. Unknown yet whether there will be votes late into the evening Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

Special Session: Afternoon activity for Senate panel

OLYMPIA — It's a sunny day, at least outside the Capitol. As for inside, the outlook may depend on the outcome of this afternoon's Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing, where the growing list includes the operating budget passed yesterday in the House, along with a list of reforms being negotiated between the two parties.

The agenda has been fluid since the meeting was announced yesterday with both time and bills “to be announced.” The blanks began being filled in late yesterday afternoon and Chairman Ed Murray said this morning the operating budget would be added to it.

Senate Democrats are also talking about floor votes Saturday on bills that come out of that committee. But the budget may need significant revisions in order to pass. It's essentially the same one Senate Republicans and their breakway Democratic allies trashed earlier in the week.

Among the reforms being negotiated are changes to the state pension system, combining school employees' health insurance with the state system to save money and eliminating Initiative 728 (the smaller classroom size law passed in 2000 by voters).

That last one is still in the House, which has votes later today.

Special Session: Budget deal may be far away

OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans and the conservative Democrats who helped them pass an alternate budget last month said they are no closer to agreement on a plan to fix the state's operating budget problems.

“The longer we stay here, the less sustainable th budget they put out becomes,” Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said. The proposal released Wednesday morning by House Democrats “just moved us farther apart as far as the structure of the budget.”

Prospects that both chambers will pass a budget and accompanying reforms before the next Tuesday, when the special session is scheduled to end, seemed to grow dimmer with each passing hour.

Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, contended it was the GOP and the three “road kill” Democrats who have given up the most in negotiations over certain reforms.  They dropped a proposal to skip next year's payment to the state pension system and a proposal to close one of the pension plans. But they want to end early retirement provisions for state employees set up under two separate laws; House Democrats are proposing just ending the most recent law.

“We've moved significantly, but we're not going to fold our tent and go home,” Zarelli said. Democrats have supported the complete package of changes to early retirement provisions in the past, he added.

Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, one of the three Democrats who voted for the budget crafted by Republicans, said a new proposal to pass a law requiring a balanced budget for two years and develop ways to balance it over four years doesn't go far enough toward the goal of structuring spending plans so legislators don't face massive cuts every year when they start a session.

The Legislature already passes a balanced budget over two years, even if that's not required by law, Kastama added. “If we didn't do that, we couldn't sell our bonds.”

Through the assembled reporters, the coalition of senators traded jabs with House Democrats and their earlier statements about who was responsible for the slow progress toward a budget deal in this latest special session.  Each group accused the other of refusing to make concessions, and painted themselves as the ones giving the most in closed door negotiations.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, had said negotiators hadn't even been able to negotiate the budget because of Senate Republicans insistence on reforming state government. “We've come significantly toward their position.”

Countered Zarelli: “I don't see it as a good faith effort. They want to take the last few days before Easter, and send an Easter egg our way.”

To complete its work by Tuesday, the House will have to pass a budget and the bills surrounding it sometime this week, and send them to the Senate where it must pass in the same version. House Democratic leaders said they don't know if they have the votes to pass some of the reforms they are proposing; if they do, it goes to the Senate where Democrats also hold a majority but don't have the votes to pass the current proposal.

Asked whether the state was looking at another special session — which would be the third since Thanksgiving to address the current budget problem — Zarelli said Republicans expected “to be flexible but not roll over” and weren't going to be rushed into a vote: “It's going to take whatever time it takes.”

Special Session: New House budget may not have the votes

OLYMPIA — House Democrats rolled out the latest version of a general operating budget this morning, along with several changes to state programs, but conceded they didn't know whether this exact plan will break the ongoing stalemate.

“We actually don't know if we have the votes for all this,” Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, called it an effort to “get the ball rolling” and address concerns from Republicans that have been discussed in negotiations, rather than the final package of budget and supporting laws that will pass.

“It's mostly an effort to keep the process moving,” Sullivan said. The clock is ticking. The last day of the special session is Tuesday, and in between are Good Friday, the beginning of Passover, and Easter.

Hunter said he assumes there are enough Democratic votes to pass the budget in the House, but some of the other changes that the budget relies on — changes to the state's early retirement plans, reduced class sizes that are on the books from a statewide initiative but often cancelled to cut costs, new rules for balancing the budget over two and four years — will need Republican votes to pass. Although Democrats and Republicans from both chambers have been in negotiations for three weeks, there's no indication the GOP will sign on.

In a report on Northwest News Service, Joe Zarelli, the top Republican on budget matters in the Senate, referred to reforms the Democrats were proposing as “dust.” Senate Republicans, and Democrats who joined with them during the regular session to pass a very different budget, scheduled a press conference for 12:30 p.m. For a report on that press conference, click here.

House Democrats also said they would introduced a pared down version of the Capital Budget, which they refer to as the Jobs Plan, that is nearly $1 billion. It's that plan that has major state construction project, some of them funded by state bond sales and others by special accounts. On the list of projects from various accounts is some $37 million to complete the Biomedical and Health Sciences building at Washington State University's Riverpoint campus in Spokane.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, chairman of the Capital Budget Committee, said it was time to take advantage of low interest rates in the bond market to build the projects. All the projects listed would employ more than 22,000 people, most in the hard-hit construction sector.

But the Capital Budget is tied in part to the General Operating budget, which revenue projections and scheduled expenses say has a hole of more than $1 billion. Legislators struggled through the regular 60-day session and are 23 days into their 30-day special session, trying to fill that hole.

In past budget plans, Democrats have suggested an accounting shift that delays a payment to the state's school districts by a few days, moving it into the next biennium so it doesn't show up on the state's books. Republicans have criticized that as a gimmick, and the latest budget drops that.

It also does not have a Republican proposal to skip a payment to the state's pension plans, which Democrats have derided as a gimmick and did not include in previous budgets. Democrats are proposing one shift to the state pension system, eliminating for new employees an option for early retirement that was approved in 2007, allowing retilrement with a full pension at 62 for those with 30 years of service; Republicans also wanted another early retirement option passed by the Legislature in 2000; Democrats don't have that, nor are they calling for the closure of some other plans. That cuts estimates for long-term savings about in half, to $1 billion over some 20 years, but doesn't really help or hurt the General Fund's bottom line this biennium.

Instead of the delayed school payment or the skipped pension payment, House Democrats embrace a proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire to modernize the system the state uses to pay cities and counties the money collected for sales tax. That shifts about $238 million into a working reserve, and boosts the budget's bottom line.

The budget has  no tax increases, and no reductions to tax credits or exemptions offered to busineses. It makes no changes to public schools or state universities and colleges, and drops a proposed 5 percent increase in Temporary Assistance to Need Families payments.

The package of reforms that will have a hearing this afternoon in the House Ways and Means Committee includes a new law that would require a two-year balanced budget and propose a way to create a four-year balanced budget. But that could fall short of a proposal by Senate Republicans and some conservative Democrats for a four-year balanced budget amendment.

Special session: Hearings start Wednesday; per diem pay relatively low

OLYMPIA – With barely a week left in the special session, most legislators return to the Capitol Wednesday for the first public budget action since the special session started March 12.

They’ll get briefings on the latest version of an operating budget – to be unveiled in the morning – that will try to pass both chambers. The House Ways and Means Committee will hold an afternoon hearing on a half dozen reforms and changes to state law necessary to make that budget work.

The majority of legislators have spent most of the special session at home while their leaders and top budget writers tried to work out a compromise. That has kept some of the costs of this overtime session – the third since January 2011 – relatively low.

About half the House and two-thirds of the Senate have collected some payments for daily expenses, also known as sustenance pay, despite the low level of public activity in the Capitol. But most of the large payments went to those involved in the ongoing budget negotiations….

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McKenna calls for budget reforms, slams Chopp

OLYMPIA –Washington should reform its employees' pension systems now and other spending rules down the road to avoid annual problems with budgets that don't balance, Attorney General Rob McKenna, the likely Republican candidate for governor, said Monday.

As the Legislature entered the third week of a special session without a budget agreement, McKenna took several swipes at Democratic leaders, particularly House Speaker Frank Chopp: “What is holding this up is the speaker's refusal to allow votes on the reform bills,” McKenna said.

He later accused Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane of “not supporting reforms.”

But Chopp and Brown fired back, saying a new budget proposal will be unveiled later this week. Other bills tied to that budget, including some of the reform topics McKenna mentioned, are set for hearings on Wednesday.

“We’re going to come in and try to pass the budget,” Brown said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review. “The speaker has not derailed the process at all.”. . .

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Sunday Spin: The bill-signing dam breaks

OLYMPIA – In the list of threats a Washington governor can hurl at a recalcitrant Legislature, “I won’t sign your bills” has proven to be among the least menacing.
Gov. Chris Gregoire kept threatening not to sign bills if the Legislature didn’t cough up a General Fund budget that left the state in the black at the end of this fiscal biennium. If any legislators quaked in their boots, they did it from afar, where they have spent most of the special session. It did not register here on the political Richter scale.
The reason for that is basic civics. . .

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More bills signed: Eyeglasses and Discover Passes

OLYMPIA – Charities like the Union Gospel Mission can soon resume distributing used eyeglasses to people who can’t afford to buy them, under a bill signed into law Friday.

The legislation, which protects charities like the Mission and the Lions Club International from lawsuits for distributing glasses and hearing aids, was one of more than 60 bills signed today by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Also signed were bills that allow residents to use the Discover Pass for state parks and other state lands on two vehicles, require more information on some political ads, offer more protection to victims of domestic violence and crack down on Medicaid fraud. . .

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McKenna camp: It’s not a budget, it’s a white paper

OLYMPIA — Responding to a shot from Gov. Chris Gregoire that she doesn't need a “monkey wrench” thrown into budget negotiations, a campaign spokesman for Rob McKenna said the GOP candidate won't be releasing a full-blown budget on Monday.

Rather, it will be a statement of principles that a McKenna adminstration would use when compiling a sustainable budget.

The campaign announced this morning McKenna would hold a press conference Monday to announce a “budget policy paper”. Asked about the impact that would have on ongoing talks to close the current budget shortfall — something that's consumed a special session in December, the 60-day regular session and nearly two-thirds of the current special session — Gregoire said she didn't know what McKenna was planning, but a new budget proposal wouldn't be helpful.

“I don't need a sixth budget proposal,” she said. “I don't need somebody external…to throw a monkey wringe into” negotiations.

Charles McCray III, campaign spokesman for McKenna, said the budget proposal will be the latest in a serious of white papers that provide “guiding principles to push us in the direction of sustainability” on state spending, not a full-blown spending plan.

“He's not inserting himself into negotiations,” McCray said.

As for the timing of the press conference, McCray said that was when it “fit on the calendar.” It wouldn't be a problem, McCray added, “if they had done their job during the regular session.”