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Marshallese could be caught in food aid “limbo land”

OLYMPIA – For 15 years, Washington has helped thousands of people the federal government wouldn’t, providing food assistance to legal immigrants struggling to survive in America.

That includes residents of the Marshall Islands who come to this country seeking jobs and medical care after the U.S. military used their nation as a nuclear test zone.

“We trashed their homeland, and they’re here trying to work,” Linda Stone, of the Children’s Alliance, said.

But that aid could all end as the state looks at ways to trim its budget. . .

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

Special Session Day 9: Progress but no budget

OLYMPIA — Legislative budget writers were making “good progress” on coming up with a spending plan for the next 15 months, but still don't actually  have one, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday.

“Making good progress is not the budget,” she said when questioned by reporters after signing several bills.

But clearly, Gregoire is beginning to plan for certain possibilities that involve something other than her preferred scenario of budget writers and legislative leaders coming to an agreement, bringing the rest of the Lege back for a quick passage of a compromise.

She said she warned Senate Republicans against bringing their latest budget plan up for a vote with a tactic similar to the one they used about thee weeks ago. Known as the 9th Order of Business, it allowed the 22 Republicans and three disaffected Democrats to form a majority, force their budget onto the floor and pass it over the objections of the remaining Democrats.

If they tried such a move, Gregoire said she told them “Get ready for multiple sessions. I think it would blow the place up.”

She also has at least begun to consider the prospect the logjam will not break before time runs out on this 30-day special session. Another one would be needed, she said, because the only other option is for her to implement across-th-board cuts for all state agenices and “I can't make it work.”

She'd call them back, but not necessarily right away. And she cautioned against any plan to wait for the June economic forecast, in hopes that state revenues might show some kind of uptick. They might also take a hit if gasoline prices continue to go up, she said.

Gregoire: Don’t threaten me

Tribal members gather in the Capitol Building after a bill signing.

OLYMPIA — Legislators unhappy about her refusal to sign many bills should take their concerns up with their leadership, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday.

“I don't take threats from legislators,” Gregoire said, responding to a press release issued late last week from a Republican legislator who accused her of “playing politics” with bills.

Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, said supporters of bills to help the developmentally disabled and bils to crack down on human trafficking should contact Gregoire and urge her to sign them. The governor said she was  holding off on signing most bills until legislative leaders break their logjam over the budget.

“They don't deserve to have these bills held hostage just because the governor hasn't gotten her way on the budget,” Delvin said in his press release.

One of the bills Delvin mentioned, which gives people with developmental disabilities help in after they enroll in an employment program, was signed Monday, but another, which involves assessing juvenile offenders for developmental disabilities when they are placed in a county detention center, remains on hold. 

Gregoire signed about a dozen bills Monday, including one she proposed to create collaboration between state colleges' education departments and struggling public schools. She also signed a bill that returns control over local courts systems from the state to Native American tribes, which brought more than 100 representatives of various tribes to the Capitol.

After the signing ceremony, many of the tribal members, some in traditional clothing, gathered outside the door of the Senate to sing.

Bills that have large numbers of supporters who must plan trips to Olympia will be scheduled and signed. But “by far and away the vast majority of bills” won't for the time being, Gregoire said: “I am not signing the majority of their bills. No budget, no bills.”

Budget leaders met Monday morning with the director of the Office of Financial Management and Gregoire made individual calls to House and Senate leaders. Both parties will have to give up a key element of the budget strategy, the Democrats their plan to delay the state's payment to schools by a few days to free up $330 million to spend in this biennium, the Republicans their plan to skip a payment to the state pension system to free up $150 million for spending. Both options have become “toxic,” Gregoire said.

If Delvin or other legislators have complaints, they are “free to go tell the leadership,” she said.

Gregoire signing some bills

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a  handful of bills this afternoon, refining her threat from Thursday she  hopes will get the Legislature to come up with a passable budget.

She's signing the bills that are important to her, she said, and that people had come a far distance to participate in the ceremony. So she signed bills that increase penalties for driving drunk with kids in a car, that make it easier for military spouses to get work when they are transferred to Washington, criminal ID checks for entities providing emergency shelter or transitional housing.

But bills that are important primarily to lobbyists and legislators will wait, she said. If either group inquires about when their bill might get signed, they're told to work toward getting a majority in both houses for a budget she can sign. She hasn't found any yet that she's definitely going to veto, and “I hope I don't have vetoy any of them.”

She did, however, repeat her promise to veto any legislation calling for charter schools, should it come out of the special session. That's a reform listed in the latest budget crafted by Senate Republicans and their three Democratic allies. One of those Democrats, Sen. Rodney Tom, is a big fan of charter schools; Gregoire is not, and calls them “a 20-year-old, failed idea.”

Budget discussions were on hold today because one of the key budget writers was unable to attend, she said. More talks are scheduled for Monday morning, she said.

New GOP budget: ‘Game changer’ or ‘waste of time’?

OLYMPIA – For the first three days of the special session, everything involving the state’s troubled budget was done behind the closed doors. That went by the wayside Thursday.
Senate Republicans and their three Democratic allies released a new budget proposal at a morning press conference that they said moved closer to Democratic plans to spend more on public schools and higher education. They used terms like fabulous, honest and “game-changer” to describe their new plan.
 But they hadn’t produced it in closed-door negotiations among budget writers just an hour before, and Gov. Chris Gregoire accused them of “wasting time” by unveiling a new budget proposal that has little chance of making it through the Legislature.
“This will not get us out of town,” a clearly angry Gregoire said. “The antics of today do not advance the ball.”
  

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

Sunday Spin: We love the bizarre in the last week. Honest

OLYMPIA – One of the hallmarks of the closing days of a legislative session is that people say and do bizarre things.
Make that more bizarre than normal. The marbled halls and floors of the Capitol Building don’t protect against the weird; they just dress it up a bit.
But after the Legislature tied itself into a Gordian knot over the budget with a week to go, partisans on both sides seemed to go farther into the deep than normal. Not that I’m complaining.
As most people with any interest in state politics know, Senate Republicans pulled off parliamentary coup of historic proportions over the state’s operating budget. Some think it was roughly on par with the tactics the Spartans holding off the Persians at Thermopylae about 2500 years ago, it’s unclear yet if they will fare better in the end than King Leonidas and company…
  

Legislature adjourns. Must come back Monday

That's all folks…the gavel comes down in the Senate on the 2012 regular session. The Legislature returns Monday for a special session.

OLYMPIA — The Legislature adjourned at midnight Thursday without passing a new general operating budget, and Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered them back to work Monday.

“They haven't gotten the job done,” Gregoire said after issuing a proclamation for a special session, which can last up to 30 days. She added that she hoped they would finish much quicker.

“They need to go  home and get away from each other,'' the governor added. “Tensions are high. People are tired. It's hard to get them to focus.”

After legislators return for the noon Monday start, most can leave while leaders try to come up with a way around what's largely been described as a logjam over sources of revenue to make the $30 billion budget balance. (Editor's note: an early version of this story had the wrong time for the start of the special session.)

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

Gregoire: Keep the pressure on

Gregoire to Legislature: Everyone's tired. Get over it

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire again tried to avoid saying the words “special session” while acknowledging it's clear the Legislature will not finish by midnight, even with a new budget proposal available for a vote in the House.

That plan is “a good step forward”, but she's still waiting for legislative leaders to bring her a different compromise that bridges the big gap between Democrats and Republicans on key revenue questions.

“I want a conceptual agreement by the end of the day,” she said. If the Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers can agree to that, the budget writers can spend the time needed to work out spending details.

A key disagreement between the two parties involves which payment to avoid. Democrats want to delay a $323 million payment to schools from the end of June 2013 to July 1. That shifts it into a different biennium, so on paper the state has more money to spend. Republicans want to skip a $133 million payment on state pensions if the Legislature will pass reforms to the retirement systems that they say will save money in the longrun.

Gregoire said she'd rather delay the school payment than skip the pension payment, but told legislative leaders at a morning meeting to come up with other budget options to avoid doing either.

“I'm not going to pretend it's a love fest in there. Tensions are high but nobody's dug in,” she said.

To suggestions from some legislators that they take a few days off to give members a cooling-off period before returning to budget discussions, Gregoire said she wouldn't do that without a working plan for a budget.  “I'm tired, too. Tough. Get over it.”

Scroll down to read previous posts on today's budget discussions.

House to vote on new budget; will it pass Senate?

OLYMPIA — With time running out on the regular session, House Democrats are poised to vote on another general fund budget plan sometime today, a compromise between the budget they passed more than a week ago and the Senate Democratic budget that never came to a vote in that chamber.

Senate Republicans, who passed their own budget with the help of three breakaway Democrats, seem confident that it won't pass the Senate.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, acknowledged shortly before noon that he doesn't have the 25 votes to pass the bill if it comes to the Senate. “Not yet,” he added.

Details of the spending plan are available here.  It contains one of the main sticking points between the two parties, a delay of a $323 million payment to schools, which Democrats support and Republicans oppose. It does not skip a pension payment worth about $133 million, which Republicans favor and Democrats oppose.

Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, was confident the working majority the GOP formed last week for its budget will hold against this proposal, which he said was negotiated between the Democrats in each chamber.

“We haven't  had one conversation, we wasted six days,” Zarelli said. “It's a little juvenile, and its posturing. It's like hanging up the phone on somebody you don't like instead of talking it out.”

Murray said that if the House passes the revised budget as expected, it would come to the Senate where Republicans could offer amendments to add or subtract things they want for a compromise. That amended budget could then go back to the House for final passage.

“We could be done by midnight,” Murray said, adding that was a goal. “Once you go into special session, everybody wants to bring up everything.”

The 60-day session is scheduled to adjourn sine die by midnight tonight. 

WA Lege: The final day or final daze?

OLYMPIA — On the legislative calendar, this is Day 60 of a 60-day session. The two chambers are scheduled to adjourn for good no later than midnight tonight.

Whether they'll go until 24:00:00 or not is unknown. What is known, however, is that they'll be back. They'll need more time to finish the budget. See previous blog post for more details.

It's not clear yet when, or how long a special session will take place. There might be some hints around noon, when Gov. Chris Gregoire signs a bill that revises the state's teacher evaluation rules. There's no connection between teacher evaluations and the special session, but after the governor signs legislation, she takes questions from reporters. First question is likely to be something like:

“So governor, about that special session…”

Stay tuned. We'll keep you updated.

Legislature heading into overtime

OLYMPIA – The Legislature is headed into overtime over its troubled budget, although like most things this year on how much the state has to spend and where to spend it, there are significant disagreements on the whats and whens of a special session.
Will it be a set period of time, like basketball overtime, sudden death like football, or an indefinite period of extra innings like baseball?
Gov. Chris Gregoire, who for days pushed for the Legislature to finish by today, acknowledged Wednesday that's not possible. She shifted the goal to having some kind of agreement on the budget by tonight, then coming back for a day or two to do “technical work” on that spending plan and pass it.
“They can’t procedurally get it done,” Gregoire said, although she refused to use the “S” words. “The minute I say special session, they’ll go to sleep, they’ll stop working”. . .

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.

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.”

 

 

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.

 

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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. . .

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

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.
  

West Valley budget workshop

The West Valley School District will host a budget workshop for the community from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Millwood Early Childhood Center, 8818 E. Grace. The superintendent and deputy superintendent will give a brief presentation on the budget, including levies, and then take questions from the audience. Space is limited. People are asked to call Sue Shields at (509) 340-7204 for reservations.

Sunday Spin: It’s not over til…

OLYMPIA – In trying to come up with a pity description for late special session, I couldn’t shake the memory of a particularly annoying greeting that adults seemed to enjoy during my teenage years: Working hard, or hardly working?

Ask the handful of legislators involved in budget negotiations, they’d say the former. Ask many others in or around the Capitol, the judgment would likely be the latter.

By outward appearances, the workload for this emergency session was disappointingly light.

Even protesters from Occupy Olympia, who had to be escorted out of budget hearings and forcibly removed from the Capitol rotunda at the start of the first week, gave up any pretense of interest by the second week. They showed an amazing lack of staying power.

By the time the session wound down on the final day, Jen Estroff, the government relations director for the Children’s Alliance, had coined a phrase summing things up nicely. . .

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

Special Session is a wrap. Budget passed, legislators head home

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane and Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla hug and other senators applaud as the gavel comes down to adjourn the special session.

OLYMPIA — Unable to find $2 billion in savings over 30 days, the Legislature agreed to about a fourth of that — $480 million — in 17 days, and called it quits for now.

The Senate approved a $480 million budget adjustment this afternoon that uses a combination of budget transfers, accounting maneuvers and cuts to state programs or departments. The rest of the savings, and possibly more if the state's economic outlook doesn't improve, will have to wait for a 60-day regular session.

That starts in less than three weeks.

Like the House on Tuesday, the Senate gave overwhelming and bipartisan support to the changes to the General Fund budget, known by some as the “Early Action Package” and by others as a partial downpayment. Those who are disappointed because the savings aren't greater right now can blame him, said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.It's not particularly helpful to cast blame, he said. “But I'm willing to take that responsibility. Then, let's move on.”

Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Senate budget panel, called it “a good start on a huge problem.” While Gov. Chris Gregoire was able to name $2 billion worth of cuts in the two months after a bad revenue forecast in September, she only had to get one vote for those choices, he said. Hers.

In the Legislature, “you've got to move these things back and forth,” Zarelli said. “I'm happy that we're getting something done.”

One of the things in the budget fix is a nine-month delay of payments to school districts for school bus maintenance and depreciation. That saves the state about $50 million, at least on paper, but could leave schools strapped for cash if their buses break down. Murray said the Legislature will set up a contingency fund for hardship cases when it returns in January.

Among those voting no were Republican Sens. Mike Baumgartner of Spokane and Mike Padden of the Spokane Valley.

Baumgartner called the budget “the lowest common denominator” of what budget negotiators could agree to. “I think a lot more could've been done. It's still Wednesday, Dec. 14. There's no reason we couldn't work through this process some more.”

Padden said the budget fix relies on too many gimmicks, like the bus depreciation. “That's not real savings,” he said. “It's not some of the real reforms we should've been looking at.”

Spec Sess Day17: Senate begins budget debate

OLYMPIA — The Senate is beginning debate on the “early action budget” which closes about $480 million of the state's budget gap.

It's the same budget approved Tuesday evening in the House.

Senate Ways and Means Commitee Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said some people call it a “disappointing” budget. But it's time to adopt it as a down payment and move on in the upcoming general session.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, ranking Republican on the budget committee, called it a good start: “I'm happy that we're getting something done.”

Leaders of both parties indicate the Senate has the bills to pass the budget.

Spec Sess Day17: A good day for adjournment?

OLYMPIA — Some strong signs that this could be the last day of the Legislature's emergency session on the budget:

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, in the Senate wings before the morning session started: “Looks like a good day for sine die.” '

The Senate should have the votes to pass the same budget approved by the House Tuesday evening, she said. There are a few more bills that could come to a vote, including some of the governor's requested aid to aerospace training and a bill that would help military spouses who relocate to Washington get easier certification for certain jobs.

Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, said Republicans have been told to prepare for a long day, but the last day.

Most telling sign, however, is that most legislators and staff are smiling like they know this is the last hump to get over.

Spec Sess Day16: House panel OKs “partial downpayment” budget

OLYMPIA — Despite misgivings that it was too meager, the House Ways and Means Committee gave overwhelming support to a $480 million change in the state's financially strapped budget.

Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, called it a downpayment.

Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, the Republican budget leader, said it was a disappointing “partial downpayment. Yet Alexander and all other Republican members of the panel except one voted with Democrats to move the cuts to the floor with only minor amendments to cover technical problems and funding for a new aviation education program.

Among other amendments voted down was a proposal by Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, to end a program reward state employees for reducing commuter miles by carpooling and other means. He called it the commute trip reduction system a bonus with a state employees the state can no  longer afford.

When Republicans said they hoped the plan would be considered for elimination in January, when the Legislature tackles the more difficult cuts, Hunter replied: “I can safely say everything is under consideration.

Spec Sess Day15: State Budget 2.0

OLYMPIA —  Legislative budget negotiators have twin proposals to reduce the state's fiscally challenged General Fund budget by about $480 million.

The “Early Action Supplemental Budget” — which consists of matching bills in the House and the Senate  — involve a series of administrative cuts, fund transfers and savings being achieved around in different state agencies. They do not involve any of the controversial eliminations of programs that Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed last month.

The plans are scheduled for public hearings this afternoon, about four hours after they were released. Legislators are describing them as a “down payment,” something they can pass in the coming days during this emergency session, then return in January for the regular session for more budget work.

The projected gap between currently approved spending and projected revenues is $1.4 billion, and Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed cuts totalling about $2 billion to provide for a cushion if tax collections continule to fall. These plans amount to less than a fourth of that amount.

House Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the legislative proposals focus on administrative cuts and noncontroversial things to which both parties can agree:  “We're going to wind up doing this stuff anyway, let's do it now.”

Some of that reductions are achieved through accounting maneuvers. For example, the state would delay a payment to schools to help cover bus depreciation for nine months, which saves about $49 million. It would make some changes in the way schools report enrollment, which saves money in some places, costs a little more in others. But there's no change to the levy equalization program or the number of school days, which are key elements of Gregoire's budget proposal. Overall, public schools would lose a total of about $54 million, not some $300 million in the governor's plan.

“We don't have consensus on cutting four days out of the school year,” Hunter said.

Also missing is any plan to eliminate the Disability Lifeline program or Basic Health Plan, which accounted for about $125 million in cuts in Gregoire's budget. The Senate and House proposals would cut $1.5 million from the State Health Care Authority, in part through keeping vacant positions vacant.

“This is not easy stuff, this is easier,” Hunter said.

The bills, plus summaries, are available on the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program web site.

Spec Sess Day12: Brown says they’ll find a partial solution

OLYMPIA — Legislators will try to fill some of the looming budget gap next week, but won't come close to the $2 billion in cuts Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed last month.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said she expects a budget proposal to be introduced Monday that will address a “substantial piece” of the projected shortfall. She declined to list a specific number, but hinted the amount could be between $100 million and $500 million.

It will be an amount that a majority of legislators in both chambers can agree on, she said. Further cuts and government reforms will come up in the regular session, due to start Jan. 9, she said: “We'll still have a long way to go.”

The Legislature won't vote on Gregoire's request for a temporary half-cent sales tax in the special session. The governor had asked for that by the end of the session to put the proposal before voters in March, and buy back some of the $2 billion in cuts she was asking legislators to approve in the emergency 30-day session.

“I thought that was an overly ambitious assignment from the start,” Brown said.

On Thursday, Gregoire also publically scaled back her expectations, saying she'd be happy with a “significant downpayment” on budget cuts and didn't expect passage of the sales tax proposal.

“I don't see any revenue measures in the special session,” Brown said. Legislators first want to consider reforms and set priorities on programs. Some of the governor's proposed cuts would save money initially by ending programs, but cost money in the long run. One such example is a proposal to make cuts to “critical access hospitals” in rural areas, which actually cost the hospitals double because the facilities would lose federal money as well as state money, she said.

Legislators are also not inclined to eliminate the Basic Health program or the Disability Lifeline, Brown said, or to make cuts in Corrections Programs, as Gregoire has proposed.

Spec Sess Day11: Gregoire says some cuts likely to wait until next year

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire acknowledged legislators are unlikely to pass the $2 billion in budget cuts she proposed in this special session and sees no chance they'll ask voters to approve a temporary half-cent sales tax increase in March.

In a conversation with reporters after a Senate hearing, Gregoire said she now believes whatever budget changes legislators can pass in the special session, it won't be “a full meal deal.”

Instead, she said she would consider “a significant down payment” acceptable, but declined to describe a level of cuts that she would regard as a success for the emergency session, which began last Monday.

But the special session will be valuable, she said, because it will give legislators a head-start on budget discussions which will continue when the regular session begins on Jan. 9. She predicted it will allow the Legislature to pass the earliest supplemental budget in history.

Last year, the Legislature was able to agree on some cuts to the budget during a one-day session in December. “The problem with this budget is, it's a whole new budget. It's not 'We're going to plug a small hole,'” Gregoire said.

Since the special session began, some Republicans have called for government reform in conjunction with cuts, and before any new taxes. Some Democrats have called for a better balance between program cuts and new taxes.

“Everybody's got their slogan,” she said. “At some point we need to get past the rhetoric and get to work.”

Gregoire called legislators into a special session on Nov. 28 after giving them a plan some 11 days earlier to cut about $2 billion in programs and salaries in the face of a looming gap in the budget. She also asked them to ask voters to “buy back” about $500 million of those cuts, through a statewide vote on a three-year sales tax increase.

More than a third of the way into the special session, visible progress on the budget is hard to find. Many legislators who are not in leadership or members of the budget-writing Ways and Means committees have returned to their homes, and the two chambers hold “pro forma” sessions most days.

House and Senate leaders, and the chairmen of the budget committees, have been involved in closed-door discussions among themselves and with Gregoire. The budget committees, meanwhile, have held a series of hearings in which people who rely on state programs for health care, education or social services have described the possible effects of those programs being eliminated. In the early days of the special session, protesters marched through the Capitol with chants and signs, sat down in the Rotunda until being forcibly removed by state troopers and interrupted some budget hearings with demands the Legislature raise taxes rather than cut services.

This week, however, the protesters are absent, as if they, too, are saving their energy for the regular session.

Until legislators settle on an “all cuts” budget and sees the effect those cuts have on state programs, Gregoire said, they won't be ready to ask voters to approve a tax increase like the one she's proposing, a three-year, half-cent increase in the sales tax, with money dedicated to certain public school, college, health care and public safety programs that will be cut from the budget if that tax isn't approved.

That won't  happen by the end of the special session, which means the state will miss the Dec. 31 deadline for proposing a ballot measure for a special election in March. Delaying the chances for a vote on a sales tax increase means it would delay bringing revenue into the state if it passes.

“Every month that goes by that they don't have a budget, we have a bigger hole,” she said.

Spec Sess Day11: More than a third gone

OLYMPIA — The Legislature continues its “special but we're in no real hurry” session with a series of committee hearings today and no votes on either floor.

No word on when, if at all, Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget cuts will get out of either chamber's Ways and Means Committee and head for the floor.

Senate Ways and Means isn't even talking about the budget today. They have a joint meeting with the Senate Economic Development Committee on Project Pegasus. That started out as an effort to keep Boeing's 737 MAX assembly line in Washington state. Now that Boeing announced it will build the plane in Renton — more a result of a deal with the company's unions — Pegasus may be a project looking for a new goal.

Some other committees will meet throughout the day in work sessions, but others have cancelled hearings.

Spec Sess Day8: Get ‘er done, Brown urges

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire's administration is beginning to show a certain frustration with the slow pace of the Legislature in its 30-day special session.

Office of Financial Management Director Marty Brown today sent all 147 legislators an e-mail saying the state is burning through $41 million a day with the current level of programs, policies and salaries in the 2011-13 budget. That's Gregoire's reason for bringing legislators back to Olympia early in an effort to pass a revised budget that would cut about $2 billion from those projected expenses.

Failing to pass a budget in the special session, and waiting until the regular session that begins Jan. 9, puts the state farther behind, and would require more cuts in more programs, Brown said.

The e-mail follows a week in which the legislative progress might have to be measured with a magnifying glass. An emergency bill to bail out the Wenatchee Public Facilities District and avoid default to that district's investors needed to pass by Dec. 1; that deadline passed with no action on the first proposal, and House Ways and Means managed to approve a revised bailout package late Friday.

One Republican House member openly doubted the Legislature would even vote on the governor's budget proposal in the special session. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said in a TVW interview that they were looking at changing legislative rules so that bills that pass only one house in the special session don't have to go back to that chamber and start all over again when the regular session begins in January.

Thanks to pro-forma floor sessions and a lack of committee hearings, most senators took a four-day weekend. Budget leaders remained behind in Olympia, but there's no sign yet of any progress they might have made.

To read Brown's e-mail to legislators, click here to go inside the blog.

Spec Sess Day 4: Can they get anything done in Dec.?

OLYMPIA — Legislators have until Dec. 28 to find ways to close the projected $1.4 billion budget gap, and maybe ask voters to raise the state sales tax to save some programs.

Some legislators of both parties have expressed doubt that they can do it in the time allotted, and the fact the regular 2012 session follows the special session by about two weeks has them suggesting some things may just have to wait.

This kind of talk does not sit well with Gov. Chris Gregoire, who called them back for this emergency session with the idea of getting the messy budget stuff out of the way as soon as possible, so savings can start accruing. If the Legislature doesn't agree by the end of the month to put a half-cent sales tax before voters, it can't go on the March ballot.

“I've heard a lot of skepticism from legislators on whether they can get the job done. I'm not willing to accept that,” she said Thursday. “Is there job tough? Absolutely. It's the reality we face today.”

She also took shots at some proposals to increase state revenue without raising the sales tax, as she has suggested, or other taxes. One of them is to expand casino gambling off the reservations. “Voters said,  not all that long ago, 'No,'” she said.

Another one, particularly popular with protesters who continue to march in and around the Capitol, is an end to a tax exemption banks have on first mortgages. That might raise $18 million, which doesn't close much of the budget gap, she said. Closing any tax loophole will take a two-thirds majority in the Legislature and “that just isn't going to  happen,” she said.

Brown: Senate Dems don’t favor “all-cuts” budget

OLYMPIA — Most Senate Democrats oppose a plan that closes the state's $1.4  billion budget gap solely with cuts, but there's no agreement at this point on where to find more tax revenue, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said Monday.

“It's going to take a little while to figure this out,”  Brown, D-Spokane, said meeting with her caucus. “Some level of reduction is inevitable.”

They haven't yet discussed Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to raise the state sales tax by one-half cent per $1 for three years.

Democratic leaders of different committees are meeting with Republican counterparts to try to find cuts to which both sides can agree, she said. Gregoire submitted one such spending plan, which calls for nearly $2 billion in cuts, with a separate bill to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase that would raise nearly $500 million that would be directed to restore some cuts to public schools, state colleges, long-term care and public safety programs.

Brown said she couldn't speculate on whether there would be agreement with the governor that her proposal would contain the proper amount, time or programs to be restored.

Spec Sess Day 1: Occupying an empty Senate

OLYMPIA — If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a noise?

If the Occupy movement occupies the Senate gallery, and no senators are there, does it make its point?

When some 200 “occupiers” crowded into the Senate gallery Monday, they chanted for about a half-hour to a mostly empty chamber.

Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, was present for some of it, and Sens. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, and Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline,  sat through bits and pieces.  But for much of the demonstration, the Senate floor was empty except for some security officials and a few journalists.