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Special Session seems certain

OLYMPIA — Republican leaders of the Legislature said a special session is now a certainty, with the only real question when it will start.

"I don't believe therre's any way for us to get done. There's no physical way," Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said after a meeting of all four legislative leaders and Gov. Chris Gregoire that was designed to "find a path out of here" on the state's general fund budget.

So, did they find a path? No path, no blueprint,  he said.

Democrats and Republicans have yet to agree on the amount of money they will have to spend, let alone how it will be spent. Republicans said they are holding firm to their belief that the state should not delay by one day a payment of $330 million to the school districts, an accounting maneuver that shifts that amount into the next biennium and frees up money for more programs.

"We're still firm on sticking with our principles," Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said.

Today is day 59 of the 60-day session, so the regular session can go no longer than midnight tomorrow. A tentative agreement on a budget would only be one step in the process. That budget would have to be printed, introduced in one of the houses as an amendment to one of the two budgets that have already passed. A budget written by House Democrats is currently on hold in the Senate, and a budget written by minority Republicans which picked up support from three Democrats and passed early Saturday morning after a parliamentary maneuver, is now in the House.

One option is to start the special session on Friday to keep any budget talks going. Hewitt and Zarelli said it would be better to start it next Monday or Tuesday, giving most legislators the weekend with their families and a "cooling off period."

"Some folks need a few days to ponder," Zarelli said.

Before leaving on Thursday the Legislature might pass a separate Transportation Budget that covers road, bridge and ferry projects. But it probably will not pass a Capital Budget, which covers other big construction projects like the construction of the medical sciences building in Spokane.

"The capital budget and the operating budget go together," Zarelli said.

Eyeglass bill gets final passage

OLYMPIA – The Legislature gave final approval this week to a bill that will allow charities like the Union Gospel Mission distribute used eyeglasses.
After several trips back and forth between the two chambers, the House of Representatives gave unanimous approval to HB 2261, which allows charities to provide glasses and hearing aids to poor or uninsured people without worrying about lawsuits…
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Special session looming

OLYMPIA — The Legislature seemed  headed for a special session Monday as leaders of both parties agreed it will be difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate a compromise between very different spending plans passed by the House and Senate in the next four days.

Thursday is the end of the regular 60-day session. In the remaining time, legislative budget leaders would have to schedule meetings, find some middle ground between a budget that passed the House solely with Democratic votes and a budget that passed the Senate with all the Republican and three Democratic votes.

The chances of that happening were rated as "highly unlikely" to "not possible" by members of both sides in the budget debate.

The remaining 24 Senate Democrats are very much opposed to both the content of that budget and the way it was introduced and passed without a hearing on a surprise parliamentary maneuver Friday.

"I don't get the timing …unless it was to say 'Take that, Democrats,' " Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane,said. The Ways and Means Committee had scheduled a hearing Saturday on the Senate Democrats budget, and Republicans could have introduced their budget there. Two of the Democrats who voted with Republicans in the marathon session Friday night are on that committee, so that would have blocked the main Senate Democratic proposal, and Republicans could have either tried to vote their budget out of committee or discussed compromises on different spending cuts and revenue options, she said.

That would  have been more in line with bipartisan work on budgets that was common in the Senate last year, she said.

Leading Senate Republicans contended that bipartisan budget discussions broke down in mid February after the latest revenue forecasts showed the state's revenue and expense projections improving, and Democrats hadn't rounded up the votes they need for their budget.  "Since when is it the ranking minority (of Ways and Means) member's responsibility to put together a budget and present it to the majority?" Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said.

House and Senate Democrats met over the weekend to discuss a budget compromises. Zarelli, R-Ridgeview, said  he has talked with two Ways and Means Committee chairmen,  Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, but no formal talks have been held, or even scheduled.

To find a compromise, Zarelli said everyone would need to agree to certain things. For Republicans, that would include a certain level for the reserve fund, and not spending more than comes in through an accounting maneuver that delays a $330 million payment to school districts by one day, shifting it into the next biennium. After that, negotiators can agree "on the stuff we're going to spend money on," he said.

The $330 million payment, known as the apportionment payment, is a major bone of contention between Democrats and Republicans. It's money the state pays to school districts, and by delaying it a day, Democrats say they avoid deep cuts to schools, colleges and social programs. Republicans say it's fiscally irresponsible.

"What if we did the whole budget with a one-day delay? We'd have a surplus" on paper, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said.

But Brown countered Senate Democrats were proposing a permanent shift for the apportionment payment, so school districts would be able to fit that into their budgets. Republicans have different accounting shifts in their budget, so "I'm not getting why the (apportionment) shift is the big deal."

But if it is a non-negotiable demand  on the part of Republicans — House Republicans are also opposed to the shift — they'll have to be willing to compromise on some things, too, such as closing some tax exemptions to increase the revenue side of the budget equation, Murray said. That would require a super majority, which means Republican votes.

"If people start drawing lines in the sand, we won't get out of here," Murray said. "If it's simply asking us to cut, we're not going to get there."



Signs of a long weekend

OLYMPIA — Members of the Senate showed some signs they were still recovering from a long weekend which had them up until 2:30 a.m. Saturday, then back Saturday afternoon for more votes.

First Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, was extolling the virtues of a gubernatorial appointment, and mentioned he was a graduate of Gon-zah-ga Law School. That one passed without comment.

Then Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, took a minute to reflect on the University of Washington men's basketball team winning their conference for the first time in a while. Except he kept calling it the PAC-10 conference.

"That would be the PAC-12 Conference," Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who was presiding over the Senate, corrected after Sheldon sat down.

Senate Republicans pass alternative budget

OLYMPIA — An alternative Republican budget passed the Senate 25-24 early Saturday morning after more than nine hours of parliamentary maneuvering and sometimes heated debate.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the architect of the spending plan said he hoped the Legislature could now "go forward" and negotiate a budget between House and Senate proposals, although Democrats on the short side of the vote seemed doubtful.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said any negotiations will be difficult: "We can't negotiate in good faith if you don't have trust….The Senate was hijacked tonight."

Sen. Jim Kastama, one of the three Democrats who joined with Republicans, admitted the plan is not perfect: "It's a beginning. It is a bipartisan budget that sets the stage for a sustainable budget in the future. The final budget will not look like this.

"There is a time to campaign for what you want, and there's a time to govern with what you have."

Sen. Tim Sheldon, another Democrat who broke ranks to support the budget, said it merely gives conservatives "a chance to negotiate."

If Republicans and the dissenting Democrats want to negotiate, they'll have to give up their demand for an all-cuts budget, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle said. They'll have to be willing to negotiate on tax exemptions and tax preference, or the Legislature will be in a special session for a very long time, he said.

Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said changes the Democrats tried but failed to make showed her party's priorities for the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged. The Republicans cuts show a preference "for the folks who've alreadly got it made."

Brown said she was fooled by Republican leadership, after meeting "week after week" and being told they'd show Democrats their proposals. "I was fooled," she said.

But Sen. Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla, the minority leader, said he and Zarelli hadn't been at a scheduled meeting with Brown and Murray since Feb. 16.

The Senate budget will now have to be negotiated with a much different House spending plan, written and passed by Democrats, and Gov. Chris Gregoire, who must sign it.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said Democrats put up a good fight over their amendments, but "you got beat by the rules." The public, he said, doesn't want a conservative budget or a liberal budget.

"The people of Washington just want a budget that works," he said. The two parties will have to get together to work on that. "We're gonna be mad for a few days…then figure out what we need to make it work."

Among Spokane-area senators, Democrat Lisa Brown voted against the GOP budget, Republicans Mike Baumgartner, Mike Padden, Bob Morton and Mark Schoesler voted yes. On the unsuccessful Democratic amendments, the votes were reversed.

Senate budget debate continues

Sen. Lisa Brown argues for an amendment to restore money for family planning.

OLYMPIA — It'safter  10 o'clock. Do you know where your senator is?

In session. The state Senate removed a rule that requires they adjourn for the day at 10 p.m. and continued its debate over alternative GOP budget proposal moved onto the floor by a parliamentary coup by minority Republicans joined by three conservative Democrats.

"This budget is a backroom deal, and a poltical stunt," Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor charged as tempers showed signs of fraying.

Starting about 8 p.m., Democrats began offering a long list of amendments to restore finding Republicans are proposing to a wide range of state programs in order to make their budget balance without a tax increase or a shift of some $330 million in payments to schools.

Some of the amounts they tried to restore were large, including $148 million for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and $85 million for the Disability Lifeline. Some were relatively small, like $116,000 for international trade. They covered money for public schools and state universities, pension plans and toxic waste cleanup.

All failed, either by the one-vote marging that allowed Republicans to push their budget into the debate, or by voice votes.

Republicans said they were making difficult trade-offs among the state's many programs, and setting priorities. Democrats questioned how those priorities were being set, with a budget that had no public hearings.

"If you think this program is really important,…show how your going to pay for it," Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

"We have a way to pay for it," Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, responded. They would cancel changes to schools required by an initiative but often suspended and delay a payment the state is scheduled to school districts.

They locked horns constantly on that major difference between the alternative GOP plan forced onto the floor and the Democrats plan, that remains in the Ways and Means Committee. Democrats want to delay $330 million payment the state makes to schools by one day, from the last day of this biennium to the first day of the next, and keep that payment schedule.

Republicans call that a gimmick, and that the state should pay it's obligations on time. "It's pushed forever into the next year," Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said.

That "looks good on paper," Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle countered, but it results in real cuts in the classroom and to social programs.

The schools prefer the accounting move, called an apportionment shift, over cuts to the classroom, based on testimony on the Democrats' budget plan at the Ways and Means Committee, Brown said, turning to Republicans. "If you had been there, you would've heard."

During a break in the debate, Zarelli said he realized that the budget propsal would go through changes in negotiations with the House. But Republican ideas would be represented at those discussions with one GOP budget on the table.

WA Lege: Senate Republicans pull budget coup

Senate Democrats try to regroup after Republicans seized control of the budget debate with parliamentary maneuvers.

OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans, aided by three conservative Democrats, used parliamentary tactics to push their alternative budget to a vote Friday and embarass the majority of Democrats who up until that afternoon controlled the chamber.

They presented a budget that has no tax increases, some $773 million in cuts and avoids some of the accounting shifts that Democratic plans use to close a gap between the state's expected revenues and its planned expenses.

On a series of 25-24 votes, Republicans pulled a now obsolete budget proposed by the governor from the Ways and Means Committee where it has languished for months, then made a motion to substitute their alternative spending plan for the governor's.

The governor's budget was drafted before the latest economic forecasts, and has draconian cults that are no longer needed, Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle said. The Republican alternative hasn't even had a hearing.

"Transparency is being tossed out the window along with any hope for bipartisanship," Murray said.

But Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said  bipartisanship has been lacking since the session started in January. Unlike last year, when Senate Democrats and Republicans worked together on a budget, Republicans felt shut out of discussions over budget cuts and reforms. But with less than a week left in the session, Senate Democrats still didn't have the votes needed to pass their budget, he said.

"This is not about partisan politics. This is about trying to get things to work right," Hewitt said.

Democrats objected at every turn, as bills were moved around by parliamentary rules. But they didn't have the votes to stop it as three of their own — Sens. Jim Kastama, Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom — voted with Republicans. As a delaying tactic, the remaining Democrats invoked a rule that requires a bill to be read aloud in the chamber unless Senators waive that rule with a two-thirds majority.

Reader Ken Edmonds began reading the budget, more than 235 pages, in full, enunciating every digit, funding change and even website address. It's a rule that hasn't been successfully invoked in decades, longtime staffers said, and a process that one estimated could take at least five hours.

While Edmonds read on, Democrats gathered in the wings to draft amendments and Gov. Chris Gregoire met with House leaders, who have already approved a budget and were expecting to negotiate compromises in the coming days.

At about page 35, senators agreed to a pause while both sides ate dinner and Democrats began preparing amendments to the Republicans' amendment.

A clearly angry Gregoire emerged from the meeting, and with a voice cracking from laryngitis, blasted Senate Republicans for dropping an unseen budget never subjected to public hearings into the process with less than week remaining in the session. "This instittion is about transparency, it's about letting the voices of the people through the door," she said.

Gregoire dismissed Republican complaints that they'd been shut out of the budgeting process. "I have reached out and worked with them. They never brought (their budget) to me."

She said final negotiations on the state's $30 billion budget would be based on the House budget, which has had public hearings.

Hewitt shrugged when told of the governor's comments. "At least we broke the logjam," he said.

Senators returned at 8 p.m., with a stack of amendments from Democrats that would restore funding to a wide range of programs. Amendments that would add funding for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Disability Lifeline to the state Energy Office, food assistance for legal immigrants all failed on votes of 24-25, or were shouted down on voice votes.

Senators clashed over whose plan was better for public schools when Democrats tried to restore state money for school-based medical services. The program involves medically fragile children the schools are required to serve, but by cutting the funding, Brown said "Olympia is saying 'Gee, sorry, you have to do it but we won't help.'"

Sen. Joe Zarelli, the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, said the GOP budget proposal spends $251 million more on public schools than the plan Senate Democrats released on Tuesday. But that's "slightly disingenuous," Murray said, and only true if they count some $330 million that Democrats "save" through an accounting shift that moves a payment to schools from the last day of this biennium to the first day of the next.



Geoduck winning protection; next — state bird?

SHELLFISH — Just kidding with the headline. I know the difference between clams and waterfowl.

But for a long time, it seems, ducks have had more protection than the great goeduck of Washington's beaches.

Numbers of the largest, oldest and most bizarre-looking wild clam species in the state have been going downhill, says the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"Geoduck poaching is particularly damaging because the species grows slowly over a long period," said WDFW director Phil Anderson.

The delicacy is the largest burrow clam species in the world and has been recorded as living as long as 146 years.

WDFW and the Department of Natural Resources announced this week in a joint statement that they will undertake new efforts aimed at "preventing poaching, evaluating environmental factors that may be contributing to the decline, seeking legislative budget support for additional field enforcement and reviewing harvest regulations."

The key may be whether they get the $500,000 they're requesting for increased enforcement.

The goeduck can grow up to two pounds by the time it is five years old.  The ones that live into their 100s can reach 10 pounds and fetch $160 per pound on the retail market.

Two-car Discover Pass bills working through Legislature

STATE PARKS — The Washington state House has passed HB 2373, which would allow two cars to share one Discover Pass, a $30, year-long parking pass for state parks and some other state lands. 

Unlike a similar bill that recently passed the Senate unanimously, the House bill would add a $10 registration fee on all recreational vehicles until 2015 to go toward state parks. 

Supporters said the bill would make it cheaper for families to visit state parks while replenishing park coffers.  

Opponents said it would implement a tax on recreation vehicles in the guise of a fee.   

The bill would allow families to buy a Discover Pass transferrable among any family vehicle for $50, and would exempt disabled veterans from having to buy the pass. 

The measure is headed for the Senate.

A dam good bill with some teeth in it

OLYMPIA — Beavers making a nuisance of themselves in Western Washington could be relocated to Eastern Washington areas that need their help in damming streams, but the furry critters from Eastern Washington couldn't be shipped west under a bill approved Wednesday by the Senate.

Seems there's already too many of the tree-chomping mammals west of the Cascades.

The proposal, described by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, as a "cute, furry little bill," allows the Department of Fish and Wildlife to set up a system in which a landowner who wants to improve groundwater or downstream flows can request beavers being captured elsewhere and removed from land where they are creating a nuisance. It also provided several legislators some much-needed work on their joke delivery.

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

Dem freshmen leap into tax reform

OLYMPIA — Democratic freshmen in the House called this morning for tax reforms ranging from a state capital gains tax to an end to sales tax exemptions for out-of-state shoppers.

At a press conference, a dozen first-term Democratic reps also said they'd like the Office of Financial Management to do a detailed study of the state's revenue picture and the tax burdens its citizens have. They'd also like to swap the Business and Occupation tax for a 1 percent income tax.

Spokane Rep. Andy Billig, one of the 12, said they wanted a tax system that's "fair and stable and adequate."

It's Leap Day, as well as Day 52 of the 60-day session, so a reasonable question might be what's the prospect that any of this will pass before the gavel comes down on the session on March 8?

They're going to try to get proposals out of committees and onto the House floor for a vote, Billig said. But if not, they'll work over the interim to push these ideas. When they pushed for closing a tax exemption the state gives large banks on mortgages last year, they didn't get much support; this year members of both parties in both houses support it, Billig said.

The House is scheduled to vote sometime today on its version of a revised 2011-13 General Fund budget. Are they withholding their votes on their leadership's budget unless they get action on their package?

"We don't leverage votes," Rep. Chris Reykdahl of Tumwater said. "We will vote on our budget today."

Problems with the state's "structural problems" on taxes were a big topic of the House Ways and Means Committee hearing later in the morning, where Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma, another one of the 12, got a hearing on her proposal for a state capital gains tax. Chairman Ross Hunter of Medina tried to corral testimony by reminding witnesses that the panel consider fiscal issues, not policy matters. That wasn't too successful, so he warned the crowd that anyone who questioned the motives an any legislator, on any side, would have their testimony cut off.

Korean War vets’ day: July 27

OLYMPIA — The Legislature has approved setting aside July 27 as Korean War Veterans' Armistice Day.

Today the Senate voted 48-0 on HB 2138, a bill which earlier passed the House 95-0.

Why July 27? That's the day in 1953 the armistice was signed after about three years of war on the Korean Peninsula. A demarcation line was drawn, a demilitarized zone set up. And that's pretty much the way things have stood for the last 58 1/2 years.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, makes the day a "specially recognized day". That's not a holiday but a day set aside for a special legislative "shout out", like Juneteenth, Pearl Harbor Day or Marcus Whitman Day. It's also a day when the POW/MIA flag is to be displayed along with the U.S. and state flags. (Although on many government buildings, the black and white POW/MIA flag flies every day, just below the Stars and Stripes.)

For veterans of one of our "forgotten wars", it seems the least the state can do, especially as we approach the 60th anniversary of the armistice.

Sunday Spin: Reaching a deal on ORVs

OLYMPIA – With all the examples of disharmony in the Legislature, it’s nice to tell a tale of folks with different agendas finding common ground and working together.

Although it doesn’t involve such high-profile issues as taxes or budgets or gay marriage or abortion, there is such a tale with two sides as diametrically opposed as Puget Sound liberals and Eastern Washington conservatives or the state Labor Council and the Building Industry Association of Washington.

The issue involves off-road vehicles, also known as four-wheel all-terrain vehicles or off-highway vehicles. In one corner, we have the people who love to ride them, wherever they can; in the other, we have the people who want them ridden less, in fewer places, with more controls.

Put another way, we have on one side people who believe in their God-given right to enjoy the outdoors and regard their opponents as tree-hugging, whiny busy-bodies. On the other, we have people who believe it’s their life’s mission to protect the environment against loud louts and their fume-spewing machines.

One might expect them to reach a meeting of the minds about as often as Planned Parenthood and the Catholic bishops. . .

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WA Lege Day 46: Will they finish on time

OLYMPIA — With two weeks left in the 2012 session, and the Senate's budget proposal still about four days away from being released, some legislators are expressing doubt that they will leave town on time.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said Thursday, however, she thought finishing work without the need of a special session was doable. . "That's the plan. . .

House Democrats and House Republicans have each released budgets, which have no visible support from members of the opposing parties.

Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has been working with Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on that panel, on a different operating budget that might garner bipartisan support.

"I can't speak to the number of (Republican) votes," Brown, a Spokane Democrat, said.

The Senate operating budget will be released Tuesday, leaving just 10 days to wrap up everything.

Along with the changes to the beleaguered operating budget, the Legislature must also pass a Capital construction budget (sometimes known as the Jobs package), and a revised transportation budget. There's legislation on medical insurance exchanges to meet federal health care reforms which Gov. Chris Gregoire wants but Republicans insist aren't necessary. 

There are some proposals for government reforms, a proposal for a constitutional amendment on balanced budgets.  And there's a question of a tax increase. Gregoire proposed a temporary sales tax increase, which Republicans in both chambers oppose. The House Democrats' budget doesn't have a state tax increase in it, but offers plenty of chances for local taxes to go up, though. The Senate budget will balance without a tax increase, but there may be a proposal to ask voters to approve some sort of increase.

"We have not completely ruled that out," Brown said.

So with all that on the table, can the Legislature really finish on time? Yes it could, Brown said: "There will still be controversies before we're done. Everybody's talking. When you need to get worried is when they're not talking."

House Dem budget has no state sales tax increase

OLYMPIA — House Democrats offered a budget plan that doesn't call for a state tax increase and doesn't make some of the cuts to public schools and state services that Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in November.

The school year wouldn't be shorter. The money the state sends to school districts to help make up for the differences in property values between rich areas and poor areas, known as levy equalization, wouldn't be cut. Inmates wouldn't be released early from state prisons.

But House Democrats did propose pulling back some state money currently going to counties and cities, then giving local governments the authority to raise local taxes to cover the difference. They do delay payments to school districts, in what some Republicans call an accounting gimmick. They reduce state employment by more than 1,500 full-time workers. They would leave less money in the treasury at the end of the fiscal period than either Gregoire or the House Republicans. . .

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

People dying without health insurance, panel told

Jaydra Cope at the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee hearing.

OLYMPIA – Jaydra Cope of Spokane sat patiently through a legislative hearing Monday on federal health care reform as Republicans and Democrats sparred over sections of the law and insurance companies differed over whether a bill should be changed.

The Eastern Washington University social work student hoped to deliver much simpler message to the committee than the intricacies of health care exchanges or the differences between bronze, silver or gold plans. If there was time.

“People are dying,” Cope said outside hearing room. Her brother was one of them. . .

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State revenue forecast: Almost flat

OLYMPIA — Washington might collect about $96 million more in taxes over the next 17 months than previously projected, which isn't much in a $30 billion budget. Relatively speaking, the revenue forecast is flat.

That was good news for Democratic legislators trying to fix a budget problem that for several years has grown every few months with a new economic forecast.

"Flat is the new awesome," Rep, Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said this morning as figures were released.

More important than the relatively tiny uptick in revenues — this quarter's projected rise is less than last quarter's projected drop of $143 million, state Budget Director Marty Brown noted — is a drop in the demand for state services, which helps on the other side of the General Fund budget's balance sheet. That's about $330 million less than Gov. Chris Gregoire assumed in November when preparing a new budget for the fiscal period that lasts through June 2013 and called for cuts and a temporary tax increase to fill the growing gap in the budget.

"The draconian cuts seem to shrink somewhat," Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said.

It's too soon to tell how much, Murray and Hunter said. Legislators need to factor both figures, the lower demand for some state services and the slightly higher state revenue, into budgets they've been working on since before the session started. "It's a cascade of numbers…You change one, all of the others change as well," Hunter said.

Also unknown, in light of the change in projected revenue and expenses, is whether the Legislature will agree with Gregoire's request to put the sales tax increase on the ballot. Adding the $330 million in projected caseload demands and the extra $96 million in projected revenue creates an amount close to what the sales tax increase would have generated for the rest of the biennium.

"It's a question," Murray said. "A week ago, I would have said it's not a question."

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, chairman of the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, disagreed. A tax increase "never should have been a question in the first place," he said.

House Republicans are scheduled to announce their budget proposal Friday. House Democrats will announce theirs early next week and a Senate budget proposal, which could have support from members of both parties, will be announced the week after. The session is scheduled to end March 7.

Rev forecast may be positive for a change

OLYMPIA – Washington might get the most optimistic budget outlook in years Thursday when state economists deliver the latest revenue forecast.
The demand for state services may be lower and the amount of expected revenue may be higher than last November, signaling a shift of more than $500 million to the good.
Things may be so good, in fact, that on Wednesday Republicans were already worrying the forecast could take the pressure off majority Democrats to agree to some long-term reforms the GOP has been pushing. . .

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Question for legislators? You might be able to phone it in

OLYMPIA – With the legislative session a little more than halfway through, many Washington residents might have a question or two for their state senator or representatives.

Some might have lots of questions.

Although many legislators are ensconced in Olympia for the duration, some plan to come back for town hall meetings this weekend. Others will be asking their constituents to phone it in – take part in a teleconference version of those meetings, sometimes known as a tele-town hall.

“It’ll be interesting,” state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said of his first tele-town hall, scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight. Although he served some 15 years in the House, the technology didn’t exist to do call-in meetings with large groups when he left the Legislature in 1995.

Participants call a toll-free number and enter an access code to participate. Some just dial in to listen; others want to ask questions.

In a session that involves fixing a major gap in the state’s general fund, cutting programs, possibly raising taxes, and approving a bill to allow same-sex marriage, there’s probably plenty to talk about.

For a list of teleconferences and actual town hall meetings for Spokane-area legislators in the coming weeks, click here to go inside the blog

WA Lege Day 37: Motion picture exemption passes

OLYMPIA – Motion Picture State Tax Exemption, take 2. And, action.

The Senate again approved the extension of a tax break for movies and television shows shot in Washington. The exemption, first offered in 2002, expired last year because the House failed to act on it last session, after it was approved in the Senate. On Tuesday, the Senate sent it back to the House on a vote of 40-8.

Supporters said the exemption is needed by the state's film industry, which includes production companies like North by Northwest in Spokane, as well as cameramen, actors and makeup artists. It’s difficult for them to compete for work when 44 other states offer some sort of incentive.

It also helps tourism by showing Washington locales, Sen. Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline said, at a time when the state's tourism budget for advertising has been cut.

Opponents like Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, said some tax breaks have to go because of the state's budget problems, and the return on investment is far less than many other exemptions.

But Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who wrote the original legislation to offer tax breaks to the film industry a decade ago, said the bill involves a tax credit the state carefully scrutinizes to ensure accountability for jobs.

"We are sustaining jobs," Brown said. "It adds to the diversity of our economy to help the arts."

The bill now returns to the House. Last year it got caught in "end game dynamics" which supporters hope it will avoid this year, she said.

A historic day, in many ways, for same-sex marriage issue

Gov. Chris Gregoire signs the same-sex marriage bill.

OLYMPIA — Within hours of Gov. Chris Gregoire signing a historic bill to allow same-sex couples to marry in Washington, opponents filed a referendum that would give voters a chance to endorse or reject it in November.

A Republican presidential candidate visiting the Capitol said the nation should move forward with a constitutional amendment that would ban same sex marriage.

To read the rest of this story, go inside the blog.

WA Lege Day 36: Gay marriage bill signing today

OLYMPIA — The same-sex marriage legislation will be signed at 11:30 a.m. today in a ceremony in the State Reception Room.

Gov. Chris Gregoire usually signs bills in her conference room, which has a long table, lots of chairs, and is the site for most gubernatorial press conferences. It usually plenty big for even the most famous or notorious legislation.

The Reception Room, which is one floor up in the Capitol Building, is significantly bigger. It is also more ornate, with Tiffany chandeliers, historic flags, piano, marble walls and columns in which the tour guides love to point out images in the stone. 

They booked the Reception Room because they are expecting an even bigger crowd than the one that filled the conference room for Gregoire's announcement that she would support a same-sex marriage bill this session.

The Secretary of State's office said that it will take a few hours after the signing to complete the paperwork required to have the bill scanned and given a Revised Code of Washington citation, which is necessary to be on any referendum the opponents would file in an effort to get the law on the November ballot. The office has not yet been contacted by a potential sponsor, who must bring in the referendum petition and pay the $5 filing fee.

The would be Referendum 73. If opponents can gather just under 121,000 valid signatures of state voters by June 6 — that's half what you need for an initiative — the law is put on hold and same-sex marriage goes on the November ballot. It would only become law if voters approve, and the timeline for election results to be certified means that would be early December

If they don't file enough signature, the law takes effect June 7.

Sunday Spin: Did gay marriage debate hurt budget progress? Probably not…

OLYMPIA – Republican leaders in the Legislature have been uniformly critical of the same-sex marriage bills as the proposals worked their way through the two chambers on what can only be described as the fast track.

An issue like this generates lots of buzz, both for and against, captures attention inside and outside the state, and – in a phrase that risks becoming overused – “sucks up all the oxygen.”

In floor debates, few opponents of the bill who objected to the change for religious reasons failed to mention that the Legislature should be doing the important work of fixing the budget rather than tinkering with a social construct that went back at least to time immemorial . . .

To read the rest of this column, or to comment, go inside the blog.

Same sex marriage signing, ref filing on Monday

OLYMPIA — The same-sex marriage legislation will be signed at 11:30 a.m. Monday in a ceremony in the State Reception Room.

Gov. Chris Gregoire usually signs bills in her conference room, which has a long table, lots of chairs, and is the site for most gubernatorial press conferences. It usually plenty big for even the most famous or notorious legislation.

The Reception Room, which is one floor up in the Capitol Building, is significantly bigger. It is also more ornate, with Tiffany chandeliers, historic flags, piano, marble walls and columns in which the tour guides love to point out images in the stone. There's also a wooden dance floor under the carpet. (Not that there's any suggestion of dancing on Monday. Just a bit of random information for those not so familiar with the Capitol.)

They booked the Reception Room because they are expecting an even bigger crowd than the one that filled the conference room for Gregoire's announcement that she would support a same-sex marriage bill this session.

The Secretary of State's office is also prepared for the filing of a referendum by opponents of the legislation on Monday, almost as soon as the bill is signed. Under state law, the referendum petition can't be filed until the bill is signed.

It would be Referendum 73. If opponents can gather just under 121,000 valid signatures of state voters by June 6 — that's half what you need for an initiative — same-sex marriage goes on the November ballot.

WA Lege working on eyeglass problem

OLYMPIA – Groups like the Union Gospel Mission could go back to dispensing donated eyeglasses to the poor this summer if legislation to protect charities with such programs comes into a little sharper focus in the Legislature.
The House and Senate both passed separate bills Thursday that protect charities by giving them immunity from lawsuits when they distribute free eye glasses after the recipient is examined by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
The Union Gospel Mission had such a program…

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

Legislature unlikely to consider pot initiative

OLYMPIA – Voters will have to decide this fall whether to legalize marijuana for personal use. The Legislature appears unlikely to vote on, or even debate, the marijuana initiative sent to them.
The House and Senate government committees held a joint work session (that's not a pun, that's what they call it ) Thursday to listen to supporters and opponents of Initiative 502, which would make personal use and possession of small amounts of marijuana legal for people over 21. . .

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House passes gay marriage bill

OLYMPIA — By a vote of 55-43, the House passed and sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire Wednesday a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Washington. Gregoire, who called for such legislation late last year, will sign it sometime within the next week.

After nearly two and a half hours of debate, the House passed SB 6239 without amendments, setting Washington up to be the seventh state in the nation to legalize same sex marriage.

In a debate both impassioned and respectful, supporters describing struggles and discrimination they or their children have had as homosexuals or likening the current laws to statutes that kept interracial couples from marrying….

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House same-sex marriage debate underway

OLYMPIA — The debate in the House on the same-sex marriage bill begins around 1 p.m. and goes until…

…no one's quite sure. But the House has nothing else on the schedule as far as committee hearings this afternoon, and has scheduled a 6 p.m. session this evening, in case they need time for other things they don't get to in the afternoon because of the debate on SB 6239.

Last week, the Senate debate played to full but respectful galleries. But even with votes on a string of amendments, the whole session only lasted about an hour and 20 minutes. Debate could last longer in the House, even though there may be more vote pass the final bill.

Spin Control will be live blogging — or technically live-tweeting — the debate from the House floor with a special widget here on the web site that will be picking up comments and tweets from others. TVW will be carrying the debate live on cable (check local listings for the channel in your area) and on its website.

Dist 81 seeking to charge for public records requests

OLYMPIA – Faced with a rapidly growing number of requests for public records, the Spokane School District wants to charge the public for the cost of locating and preparing those records.

Mark Anderson, associate superintendent, said District 81 wants to pass on the "reasonable costs" of complying with public records requests, which have tripled over the last three years and now cost the district an estimated $70,000 a year.

A bill that would allow districts all over the state to do that received a brief hearing this week in the Senate budget committee, but in a fashion that has some government watchdogs criticizing the process. Senate Bill 6576 is probably dead; the issue, however, is still alive. . .

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House to debate gay marriage bill Wednesday

OLYMPIA — The House of Representatives scheduled a debate on the same-sex marriage bill to begin at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Representatives will be debating SB 6239, the version that passed the Senate last week, rather than a House version of the bill.

The two bills started out identical, but the Senate agreed to some — although not all — amendments last week proposed by critics who said the original bills didn't go far enough to protect the rights of people or organizations with deeply held religious beliefs that marriage is only between one man and one woman. Clergy would not be required to perform same-sex weddings if it goes against their faith and church groups couldn't be sued for refusing to allow such ceremonies in their facilities. For a story on the Senate debate, click here.

If the House passes the Senate bill without any further amendments, it would go to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has said she would sign it. If the House adopts any amendments, the bill would have to return to the Senate for another vote.

The bill would not become law until early June, and then only if it isn't headed for the November ballot. As it now stands, the bill does not have a referendum clause, but opponents have said they will mount a signature drive to gather the 120,000-plus signatures needed to put it before voters. If their signature drive is successful, the law is put on hold and doesn't take effect unless it receives majority support in the general election.