OLYMPIA –With 10 days left in the regular session, Democrats and Republicans seemed moving inexorably toward an impasse on a $43 billion-plus state budget that will force them into overtime for the seventh time in eight years.
“If we don't begin budget negotiations right away, it would likely put us in special session,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said Thursday.
Both parties’ leaders say they don’t want a special session, and appear ready to blame the other side if that happens.
At their weekly press conference, Democratic leaders of both chambers made it clear there are no plans for the House to vote in the waning days of the regular session on a package of taxes needed for the $44.9 billion operating budget it passed. They want to begin negotiations and hold off any vote on taxes until a compromise budget makes clear how much extra tax revenue, if any, is needed.
Republican leaders have conditioned budget negotiations on the House passing taxes connected to its budget, saying the Senate has already approved the tax changes needed for its $43.3 billion budget.
“Neither chamber has the votes for the other chamber's budget,” Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said.
The two spending plans don't just differ in their bottom lines. They also differ on key budget priorities, such as public schools, on how much should be spent, how those expenses should be determined and where the state should get the money to pay for it.
On Thursday, the Washington Research Council released a comparison of the two budgets, showing where they differ on key sections. The Senate budget needs about $1.6 billion in new revenue, the House budget about $3 billion. The Senate budget rejects most of the contracts negotiated with state employees' unions while the House accepts them. The Senate budget repeals voter approved initiatives that call for cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and other school employees and reductions in class sizes in elementary, junior high and high schools; the House budget pays for the school COLAs, and delays the class reductions.
“Both sides say there are problems with the other side's budget. That's not unusual, that's what happens every year,” Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane said. The only way to get a budget that can pass both chambers – what legislators call the “go-home budget” because that's what it lets them do – is with formal negotiations among leaders of both parties in both chambers, he said.
“You can't force somebody to negotiate if they refuse to negotiate,” Billig said.
If House Democrats believe they have can pass their tax package, they should take the vote, Senate Ways and Means Vice Chairman Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, said. “We've done all our work, they haven't done theirs.”
Until that time Senate Republicans would be negotiating a budget that is funded against one that is not, which doesn’t make sense, Rossi said.
But House Finance Chairwoman Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, said the Senate budget also relies on a tax vote that has not been taken. It contains a referendum clause requiring voters to approve the major shift in the property tax system that would pay for improvements in public schools.
“It's a hope and a prayer in November that voters are going to approve revenue,” Lytton said.
Rossi later scoffed at that, saying it shouldn't be difficult to convince voters to approve a change that gives a tax cut to 80 percent of the public and improves schools.
The Senate budget does, however, call for a property tax increase in some of the most populous parts of the state, including Seattle.
While budget negotiations are not happening, formal talks on public education, which covers about half of the budget, are proceeding with regular meetings of leaders from both parties in both chambers. Agreement on how to meet a state Supreme Court order to meet constitutional obligations on public schools is a key element in the budget.
“It's really hard to do the rest of the budget without this,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who is part of those talks. It would be possible, she said, to reach an agreement on public schools before the regular session ends on April 23 by working every day.
But with Easter weekend part of the remaining 10 days, that could be difficult. Most lawmakers headed home on Thursday for the holiday weekend, and floor action isn't expected until Monday.