OLYMPIA – Both chambers of the Legislature debated budgets worth tens of billions of dollars over the next two years, arguing whether they were just directing spending or making statements about the future of the state and its values.
The House passed its budget on a partisan 51-47 vote in a few hours Thursday. But the Senate failed to pass its budget, despite debating past 2 a.m. today as minority Democrats and a predominantly Republican majority engaged in a protracted parliamentary battles.
It will receive another vote Monday when it is expected to pass.
The two parties began their debate in the Senate with a fight over a rule change that required a 60 percent majority to approve any amendment to the budget.
Minority Democrats in the Senate had proposed 70 amendments, some about controversial issues like a higher minimum wage, sick leave, climate change, reproductive rights and civil rights. Requiring a supermajority to pass any of them would give some moderate Republicans political cover to vote for an amendment they know will fail, said Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.
The Senate required a supermajority for such amendments until 2011, when moderate Democrats joined with Republicans to change it. Although Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, who authored the change in 2011, supported its return, other Democrats who supported it four years ago called the move “a step backwards” in efforts to have bipartisan budgets.
One of the early amendments would have required any business that contracts with the state not to discriminate for things like race, religion or sexual orientation. State and federal law right now does not cover businesses with fewer than eight people, said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.
“We have a long, proud history in this state of not discriminating and protecting our citizens from discrimination,” Ranker said. “We are not Indiana.”
It failed to get 30 votes, although a roll call wasn’t recorded.
At 1:20 a.m., they began debate on one of the most contentious and expensive amendments, which would approve contracts negotiated between the governor’s office and state employees’ unions. Republicans have proposed rejecting those contracts and the cost-of-living raises they include, and instead giving each employee a $1,000 raise this July and another $1,000 raise next July. Approving the contracts and paying the salaries in it would add $66 million to the budget.
State workers took some big hits during the recession with pay cuts and furlough days, Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said. They need to catch up during the recovery.
It failed on a 29-20 vote, falling one vote shy of the supermajority when six Republicans joined minority Democrats. That amounted to a 59.2 percent approval, “a pretty good majority anywhere,” Hargrove said. “This is exactly why I supported the rule change back in 2011. It lets people hide,” he said.
Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said the Democratic amendments were mostly about securing “political gain”. He offered one amendment, to use money from marijuana taxes for the ending fund balance rather than putting it the general fund where it would be spend on a wide variety of programs including public schools. It passed on a voice vote. Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said the amendments were being proposed for “political gotchas.”
“A budget isn’t about the policy of social issues. It’s how we fund our state,” said Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Ranker countered: “This budget dictates the values of Washington state.”
There was less debate and far less drama in the House, where Democrats passed their $38.8 billion budget, which would need some new taxes to pay for all the programs and salaries it covers, on a 51-47 party line vote in a few hours.
The House budget would put more youngsters in early learning programs, fix problems in mental health and social service programs, and comply with court orders to improve public schools, said Appropriations Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina. “This is a strong investment package in fixing these problems in the state.”
To make those investments, it is “above board in every way” by relying on tax increases to pay for those fixes, said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. Among the tax increases House Democrats are proposing is a capital gains tax on some investment returns above $25,000.
But those taxes haven’t been put to a vote and can’t be counted on, Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, argued. “We’re attempting to pass a hollow budget.”
It doesn’t go far enough to help college students and their families, said several Republicans. Although the House Democrats’ budget freezes tuition at state colleges and universities, House Republicans prefer a spending plan in the Senate that cuts tuition over two years by as much as 25 percent and ties it to the state’s average wage, and tried unsuccessfully to add that to House plan.
“The budget isn’t about numbers as much as it is about a narrative. It’s about the future … how we step from here to there,” said Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane.
For the House, the steps from here to there were much shorter.
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