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Budgets could force special session

Legislation on gun control and abortion passed the House but has stalled in the Senate

OLYMPIA – The Legislature is running out of days faster than it is running out of controversial issues, but leaders are still wary of saying they will need a special session to finish the state’s business this year.

In the 10 days remaining, they would need to agree on a budget of at least $33 billion for the next two years of state programs, and the House operating budget is far different from the Senate operating budget. More troubling for those hoping to be done by April 28, the chairman of the Senate budget committee wants the House to vote on a package of tax increases needed to pay for some of its budget before serious negotiations can begin; the chairman of the House budget committee wants the Senate to vote on significant policy changes in its budget.

Two other budgets, one for more than $8 billion in transportation and another for some $3.6 billion in large construction projects, are also in different stages of completion.

Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday he is “insistent” that the Legislature also should pass bills on three controversial topics – abortion, college aid for students who are undocumented immigrants and gun control – before it wraps up. The first two have passed the House but stalled in the Senate, and the third hasn’t passed in either body.

A few hours earlier, Senate Democrats had tried their second procedural maneuver in as many days to move the Reproductive Parity Act into a position where it could get a vote. The bill, which would require most insurance plans that provide maternity care to also cover abortion, has been thwarted by the mostly Republican majority coalition, even though a majority of senators say they support it. The procedural maneuver failed, and the act didn’t get an up or down vote before Wednesday evening, one of the many deadlines that winnows out bills that don’t pass a full chamber.

Neither did the other bills Inslee said he wanted. They aren’t quite dead but are on life support.

“Until the final day, every bill, through some form of magic or another, is still alive,” Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said at a news conference Wednesday. Tom wasn’t referring to the three bills that Inslee wants but to legislation on reforms for schools and the workers’ compensation system that his caucus supports but are stalled in the House. The comment made it clear, however, that many pieces of legislation could become bargaining chips when the budget writers for the House, Senate and Inslee can craft an operating budget with enough support to pass both chambers.

When that will be is difficult to predict. Sen. Andy Hill, R-Renton, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the Senate can’t take the House operating budget seriously because it relies on some $1.3 billion in revenue from eliminating various tax breaks or extending taxes that were designed to be temporary. Legislation calling for those taxes has not passed the House, and its committee hearing is Friday.

The Senate bill does not rely on new taxes. But House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the Senate has not passed various policy bills needed to change state law to make that chamber’s budget work.

After saying he thought the Legislature could still finish on time, Tom explained to reporters how he’d like a special session, if needed, to be scheduled. Rather than starting right away, maybe they should take some time off and have legislative leaders travel the state to present their respective budgets to voters, he said: as many as 20 meetings in seven days.

Inslee was unenthusiastic. “I’m up for talking to people in a lot of different contexts,” he said. “But the sooner people here get serious, the better.”

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