OLYMPIA – With the clock ticking toward a partial government shutdown, the Legislature was presented Thursday with several options to “keep the lights on and the parks open,” as the Senate’s chief budget writer Andy Hill said.
He acknowledged that may require working past Saturday, the end of the current second special session, and into a third overtime session. It might also mean passing a one-month stop-gap budget to cover all current state services in July, if negotiations aren’t complete by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“We don’t think we’ll ever need to use it,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Hill, R-Redmond, said of the stop-gap budget as he introduced it along with the latest Senate GOP budget proposal for the full two-year cycle. “We want to make it clear we will not shut down the government.”
Senate Democrats balked at the one-month option, likening it to a family living paycheck to paycheck. It would continue the uncertainty for school districts trying to set budgets for the upcoming school year, Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane said.
The two-year budget proposal, a $38.2 billion spending plan, has a bottom line about the same as an early proposal by House Democrats, and would spend similar amounts on many programs. It raises the amounts proposed in previous GOP plans for early learning programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and mental health programs, and offers a larger raise for public school employees which Democrats have pushed.
It continues the Senate GOP stance against new taxes, a position House Democrats accepted earlier this week. “The debate over taxes is over,” Hill said.
But the two latest budget proposals still have some differences that need to be worked out, including a major disagreement on college tuition: Senate Republicans favor a 25 percent tuition reduction at the state’s colleges and universities; House Democrats favor a tuition freeze coupled with higher spending on student aid.
In their budget earlier this week, House Democrats proposed ending or reducing 10 tax preferences to raise about $356 million for state programs. The new Senate Republican proposal changes three tax preferences, raising about $126 million, but is the first plan they offered with any closures.
Budget leaders still must negotiate a single spending plan that can pass both chambers, and any plan that calls for a change in the class reduction initiative voters approved last November will require a super-majority. After that deal is struck, the final budget must still be proof-read and printed – process that usually requires at least a day for a 500-plus page document that makes thousands of spending decisions – and legislative rules give lawmakers time to read it.
That timeline suggests the process will be difficult to finish by Saturday, something Hill seemed to acknowledge at a committee hearing Thursday afternoon.
“We anticipate finishing by Tuesday,” he said, then added, “or sooner.”
Tuesday is the last day of the current fiscal year, which would make it the eve of a partial government shutdown.