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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Budget deal may be near

All sides work late into the night to close $1 billion gap

OLYMPIA – Legislative leaders and the governor worked into the night Monday, searching for a solution to the state’s long-running budget stalemate, one that would allow them to adjourn the special session by midnight tonight.

“We’re coming back to see if we’ve actually got an agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said as leaders of both parties in the two chambers, as well as the top budget writers, gathered in the waiting room outside the governor’s office about 8:30 p.m.

Terms like “framework,” “tentative agreement” and “possible agreement” were all mentioned at some point as legislators came and went. But a deal that everyone could point to and explain remained elusive.

As top Republicans from the House left the office, they were asked if an agreement was reached. “I’d tell you if we did,” said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, of Chehalis, who then left without another word.

Negotiations ordered by Gov. Chris Gregoire began at 12:30 p.m., with intermittent breaks for leaders to carry proposals back and forth to their caucuses. About 7 p.m., leaders took a longer break and outlined the proposals for a budget and several reforms to their members, testing the waters for support.

The operating budget is more than $1 billion out of balance between what the state expects to collect in revenue and is scheduled to spend on salaries and programs through June 2013. But legislators reportedly have been close to settling the operating budget itself, leaders said.

The real holdups, as has been the case for weeks, are changes to state programs or policies, which some call reforms, that would reduce state expenses in future years.

The main reforms involve revising state budget practices so projections for expenses and revenue balance for four years into the future, rather than two; making medical insurance plans for public school employees more like the health care plans for state employees; and revising the state pension systems so new employees will have a less generous system for early retirement.

If they have enough support among the parties in both chambers, legislators will play “beat the clock” all day today, racing to complete business by the adjournment of the special session, which must happen by midnight.

They will have to agree on language for any bills in the agreement.

That language must then be drafted and reviewed, then passed in the exact same form in both chambers.

Legislative staff could work through the night, but only if what was sometimes described as merely a framework for an agreement turns into solid agreements on key pieces of legislation.