OLYMPIA – The Legislature ground toward a special session over the state’s budget woes despite a last-ditch effort Thursday by Democrats to craft a budget that could pass both chambers.
Republicans dismissed the effort as a “juvenile attempt” to avoid negotiating with them, and Gov. Chris Gregoire lowered the bar of her expectations slightly, from a budget agreement to a “conceptual agreement” that legislators could use as the foundation for quick work in a special session. However, she refused to call a special session while time remained on the clock Thursday.
The 60-day regular session officially ended at midnight, but even if a bipartisan deal could be struck among the House and Senate leaders, the time needed to print, review and vote on it would carry the Legislature past that deadline.
“Our only hope to get out of here on time just went down in flames,” House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said as the Democratic budget moved through the House on its way to the Senate, where it was expected to fail.
Capping off a week of partisan maneuvering over the budget, House Democrats essentially gutted a Senate spending proposal that was pushed through the upper chamber in a parliamentary coup last weekend, when three Democrats sided with Senate Republicans on a more conservative budget than most Democrats were backing.
Using what’s known as a striking amendment, House Democrats on Thursday replaced that plan with one more in keeping with a budget Senate Democratic leaders favored but couldn’t get the votes to pass.
One of the biggest sticking points in all these spending plans is a disagreement over whether the state should delay a $332 million payment to school districts a few days, shifting it from the end of June 2013 to July 1, 2013.
Democrats contend the shift would allow them to spend that amount on a variety of education, health and social programs; Republicans say it means spending less overall on public schools in the biennium.
It’s not a cut, said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, because the school districts get the same amount of money in their fiscal year, which runs on a different calendar. “The school districts aren’t concerned. They’re more concerned about (school program) cuts.”
Republicans dismissed it as a “felony gimmick” that would land a business owner in jail.
“This is the great divide of this Legislature,” said state Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, who insisted a budget document is “a moral document. If we shortchange kids right now, all we’re doing is shortchanging our future.”
House Republicans tried to amend the Democrats’ amendment with a budget of their own, which did not delay the payment to schools but made deeper cuts in state programs. It failed on a mostly partisan 55-43 vote, with one Democrat joining all Republicans.
House Democrats then passed and immediately sent to the Senate a budget that included the delay in the apportionment payment to schools and fewer cuts to state education, health and social programs. It passed 53-45, with three Democrats siding with all Republicans against the budget proposal.
But 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 solely by Democrats in each chamber.
“We haven’t had one conversation; we wasted six days,” Zarelli said. “It’s a little juvenile, and it’s posturing. It’s like hanging up the phone on somebody you don’t like instead of talking it out.”
But Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said Republicans would be given a chance to offer their amendments when the plan came up for a vote.
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