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WaLeg Day 102: Special session, here we come

OLYMPIA – The Legislature will need to go into overtime to handle key issues, including an agreement on the $38 billion budget needed to keep the state running for two years starting July 1.

Legislators will wrap up their regular session, which could have gone until midnight Sunday, sometime this afternoon. Gov. Jay Inslee will call them back into special session starting Wednesday for as many as 30 days.

“It’s time to compromise,” Inslee said at a morning press conference. “I understand I won’t be getting everything I proposed… The House is going to have to find a way to reduce spending and the Senate is going to have to find a way to raise revenue.”

Inslee said he was giving legislators a few days off to be “respectful of legislators wanting to see their families for a couple days.” But he’s asking budget leaders to return Monday to try to restart negotiations on the 2015-17 operating budget, which broke down last week. The predominantly Republican Senate majority said they wanted House Democrats to put the tax increases needed for their budget to a vote before considering it; otherwise, they argued, the House spending plan was way out of balance.

House Democrats countered that Senate Republicans had already said they wouldn’t consider a vote on those taxes if they came over from the House, so why bother; they wanted to go through the two budgets section by section to find agreements and possible compromises.

The operating budget is the one thing legislators must pass before going home for good. Without it, the state doesn’t have the authority to spend money on many programs and salaries after June 30, which could prompt a partial government shutdown. The budget must also try to satisfy a state Supreme Court order that the Legislature provide more support for basic education expenses in public schools. There are also court orders to improve treatment and facilities for some mental health patients, possible expansion of other social service programs, pending union contracts with raises for state workers and statutory raises for teachers that are tied up in that budget.

Legislators can tackle any issue  they want in a special session, just as they can during a regular session, and they are likely to continue negotiations over a a transportation package that would raise the gasoline tax by 11.7 cents over three years to pay for a long list of new road and bridge projects and do maintenance on others. They will also have to resolve differences on the capital construction budget and the ongoing transportation budget, which allocates the money coming in from current transportation taxes and fees.

 Inslee said he would also like them to complete work on a compromise of different oil transportation safety proposals that have passed each chamber, and enact some legislation on reducing carbon pollution, a topic he’s championed but hasn’t gained much traction in either house.

In 2011 and 2013, the Legislature needed two special sessions to reach an agreement on an operating budget. Legislative leaders from both parties have said they would like to reach a budget deal by mid May so school districts will know how much money the state will be sending them as the districts plan their budgets for the upcoming school year.

WaLeg Day 95: Budget talk breakdown could lead to special session

OLYMPIA — Budget negotiations between House Democrats and Senate Republicans are currently kaput, with each side pointing the finger at the other for who is responsible.

Senate Republicans say they wanted the House to put its proposals for a new capital gains tax and some increases in the business and occupation tax to a vote, to prove they would support some $1.3 billion in extra revenue their 2015-17 operating budget would need. Without the extra money, Senate Republicans would be "negotiating against ourselves," Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill said.

House Democrats insist they have the votes for those taxes, but see no reason to pass legislation that Senate Republicans have said they won't pass in that chamber so the two sides should just dig in to the details and see what sort of agreements they can reach. House Democratic Leader Pat Sullivan said they even proposed a schedule of topics from discussion, but Senate Republicans weren't interested. 

So negotiations ended without really getting started Wednesday, and showed no signs Thursday of resuming any time soon, with the clock ticking toward April 26, which by law is the last day of the regular session.

Republicans accused  Democrats of deliberately stalling in hopes of getting to a special session, where they would have an advantage. What advantage? Well, more Republicans live farther away from Olympia than Democrats, so calling legislators back is more of a burden on Republicans, they said. If a budget deal isn't reached by June 30, many state agencies would have to cut back or shut down because they wouldn't have any legal authority to spend money to do their work.

And Republicans traditionally get blamed for that, Hill said. "There is a belief that if you shut down the government, it disadvantages Republicans.

WaLeg Day 86: Would voters agree to change class size law?

OLYMPIA — House and Senate Republicans were confident Tuesday that voters would agree to trim down requirements to reduce class sizes in public schools, as approved yesterday in a bill connected to the Senate budget.

Survey results released Tuesday by The Elway Poll said the concept of across-the-board reductions remain popular. The company asked some 500 voters around the state if they would support what seems to be the Legislature's preferred alternative — limiting reductions to kindergarten through Grade 3, rather than making them in all grades — and more than half said the Legislature should find a way to reduce all class sizes.

If the Legislature asks the voters to choose between a tax increase to pay for system-wide class-size reductions or limiting the reductions to K-3, respondents were split: 48 percent said they'd likely or certainly vote no on a tax increase while 43 percent said they'd likely or certainly vote yes.

A major theme of both parties in both chambers this year has been that the state cannot fully implement Initiative 1351, which voters approved last November, without a tax increase. There's general agreement on trying to limit the reductions to K-3, which supporters say research shows is the most effective for helping struggling students. There's no specific agreement, however, on how to do that.

Changing an initiative in the first two years after voters approve it requires a two-thirds majority in both houses under most circumstances. But asking voters to approve such a change through a referendum only requires a simple majority, and the predominantly Republican Senate majority passed and sent to the House a bill that would do that on Monday

Minority Democrats in the Senate all voted no, but on Republicans essentially challenged House Democrats to come up with a better plan.

"The House hasn't passed anything related to 1351," Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said Tuesday at the weekly GOP press conference. "Show us your plan in the House. Is it a two-thirds vote?"

 Schoesler discounted poll results so far before a possible election, noting that I-1351 had a large margin in the polls months before the election but passed with only about 51 percent of the vote. The results might have been different if voters had more information about the total cost or the opposition from state leaders, he added. 

Pollster H. Stuart Elway noted that the lead for I-1351 evaporated last year as opponents hammered on the cost. "This smaller lead might be vulnerable once real dollars are attached," he said.

Smaller class sizes are popular but the public is divided on costs, he added. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this post misidentified H. Stuart Elway.)


WaLeg Day 85: Senate passes class-size referendum, operating budget

OLYMPIA – Washington could be asked this fall whether they really want smaller class sizes in all public schools like they approved last November, or if they’d settle for just dropping numbers in kindergarten and the primary grades.

In an effort to construct a budget that doesn’t require a tax increase, Majority Republicans in the Senate proposed shrinking the number of students in kindergarten through Grade 3 to 17, as an initiative approved last year requires, but leaving larger numbers in Grade 4 and up. It would require fewer teachers, principals and support staff than needed to comply with I-1351 – and save the state billions of dollars, supporters said.

By making the changes in legislation that has a referendum clause that requires voter approval, the plan would also allow the Legislature to changes I-1351 with a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds majority usually required to amend an initiative within two years of its passage.

But it’s also a “high-stakes” gamble, Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said. If voters reject the referendum, legislators will have an immediate hole of $2 billion in the state’s operating budget.

 I-1351 didn’t specify how the state would pay for smaller class sizes, and the referendum is just a way of going back to voters and asking them to support it if they know the cost and agree with it, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said. “Yes, we’re going to be in a tough spot (if the referendum fails). We’ve been in tough spots before.”

Eliminating the class reductions for Grade 4 and up is like telling those students “you don’t matter” and the referendum is telling voters “we don’t like what you did,” Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, said.

But concentrating on the youngest grades, where research shows small class sizes have the greatest impact, would show the Legislature believes the issue is important and “we’re making strides towards getting there,” Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, said.

The bill passed 27-22, picking up only one minority Democrat, and was sent to the House, before the Senate turned to the $38 billion operating budget to which it is linked. That allowed both parties to reprise, in shortened form, their nine-hour debate from last Thursday night and Friday morning on the two-year spending plan that would cut college tuition and put some $1.3 billion toward public schools without raising taxes.

Cutting tuition amounts to a middle-class tax cut, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said. “No one nationally has done this.”

But Democrats said it has hidden costs, relies on shifting marijuana taxes and the approval of the class-size referendum was “a house of cards.” Several Republicans also signaled they wouldn’t vote for a final budget that rejected raises for state employees that have already been negotiated or cuts to social services like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which are part of this plan. But all members of the Majority Coalition, which consists of all 25 Republicans and Democrat Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, voted yes and all other Democrats voted no, producing the same split that existed on most amendments that failed in the protracted debate last week.

That vote means the budget process moves into the next phase, in which budget leaders try to negotiate a final bill that will pass both chambers .

House Democrats passed a much different budget last week that would require a capital gains tax and some other tax changes, but those taxes haven’t been put to a committee vote yet. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the plan that passed Monday is in a stronger position because the additional legislation it needs also has passed the Senate.

Government shutdown list in works

OLYMPIA — Despite a slightly better economic forecast and expectations of a budget deal among legislators, Gov. Jay Inslee's office has prepared a list of state services that would and wouldn't be available July 1 if a budget isn't passed.

The preliminary list divides agencies into three categories: No shutdown; partial shutdown and complete shutdown. Among those staying open are the state colleges and universities, the courts and those that receive money from something other than the operating budget, such as the Transportation Department, Innovate Washington, Financial Institutions, Treasurer and Traffic Safety Commission.

Some smaller agencies — the Arts Commission, Public Disclosure Commission, Eastern Historical Society, Liquor Control Board, Human Rights Commission and Indian Affairs — would be among those facing complete shutdown, as would the state Parks.

Partial shutdown is more complicated, but it includes many of the big agencies like Departments of Social and Health Services, Health, Military, Natural Resources, Corrections and State Patrol. But no, the last two don't mean the prisons doors would be thrown open or no one would be writing tickets on I-90.

For a look at the list, click here.

House Democrats offer ‘significant compromise’ budget

Rep. Ross Hunter explains a point in the new House budget proposal, flanked by other Democrats from the Senate and House.

OLYMPIA — House Democrats offered to trim back spending and drop many proposals on taxes as part of a compromise they say would allow the Legislature to pass a 2013-15 operating budget before time runs out in the special session.

The $33.6 billion plan for the next biennium spends an extra $700 million on public schools in an attempt to meet a state Supreme Court mandate, although less than their leaders proposed at the beginning of the year.

It closes fewer tax exemptions and preferences and would not extend a business and occupation tax surcharge or higher taxes on beer that are scheduled to expire at the end of the month. A separate proposal would close or reduce seven tax exemptions, raising an estimated $256 million. That money would be dedicated to specific programs in public schools or colleges if they pass as separate legislation…


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House passes budget much different from Senate.

OLYMPIA — The House passed a $34.2 billion budget for most state programs that would add money to public schools and assumes a jump in some taxes on businesses and consumers.

In a mostly party-line vote, House Democrats the two-year spending plan that their budget chairman, Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina, described as "a responsible budget that invests in our education obligations responsibly."

Republicans described it as a budget that will cost the state jobs. "My taxpayers and my businesses are not happy about this budget at all," Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, the ranking Republican on the budget committee, said.

The 54-43 vote, in which all Republicans and a single Democrat voted no, was merely the next step in the political dance between the House, the Senate and Gov. Jay Inslee, moving the state's biennial operating budget into negotiations among all those groups. Inslee also proposes changing some tax preferences to increase revenue; the Senate spending plan which passed last week has no tax increases, although some members who voted for that plan said they expected it to come back from the House with some "loopholes" closed.

Those negotiations will start Monday. The session is scheduled to adjourn on April 28, but a special session will be called if a spending plan isn't hammered out by then.

The House legislation that would actually end or revise those exemptions and extend temporary taxes on some business services and beer has not yet had a committee hearing.

The House budget reduces class siizes for young children in public schools, pays for all-day kindergarten in some of the state's poorest districts and adds money for school supplies and transportation. It also increases spending on early learning programs and all

"We all face the same problems. We choose different solutions," Hunter said. The Senate plan relies on gimmicks and unrealistic assumptions the House plan doesn't use. "We don't give everybody everything they want. We fix broken stuff."

But with state revenues expected to grow by $2 billion over the next two years and some $900 million in other changes that both sides support, the state shouldn't have raise taxes, Alexander said: "When do we say enough's enough? At what point do we say government needs to live within its means."

Countered Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington: "This is the only budget I've seen today."