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Washington’s budget likely to go down to wire

OLYMPIA – With the clock ticking down to a partial state government shutdown, several options emerged Thursday that would “keep the lights on and the parks open,” as the Senate’s chief budget writer, Andy Hill, said.

He acknowledged that likely will mean working past Saturday, the end of the current second special session, and into a third overtime session.

It also could mean passing a one-month, stopgap budget to cover state services in July, if negotiations aren’t complete by Tuesday, the end of the fiscal year.

“We don’t think we’ll ever need to use it,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Hill, R-Redmond, said of the one-month budget as he introduced it along with the latest Senate GOP budget proposal for the full two-year cycle. “We want to make it clear we will not shut down the government.”

Senate Democrats balked at the one-month option, likening it to a family living paycheck to paycheck. It would continue the uncertainty for school districts trying to set budgets for the upcoming school year, said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

The Senate Republicans’ latest two-year budget proposal, a $38.2 billion spending plan, has a bottom line about the same as a recent proposal by House Democrats, and would spend similar amounts on many programs. It raises the amounts proposed in previous GOP plans for early learning programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and mental health programs, and offers a larger raise for public school employees, which Democrats have pushed.

It continues the Senate GOP stance against new taxes, a position House Democrats accepted earlier this week.

“The debate over taxes is over,” Hill said.

But the two latest budget proposals still have some differences that need to be worked out, including a major disagreement on college tuition: Senate Republicans favor a 25 percent tuition reduction at the state’s colleges and universities; House Democrats favor a tuition freeze coupled with higher spending on student aid.

In their budget earlier this week, House Democrats proposed ending or reducing 10 tax preferences to raise about $356 million for state programs. The new Senate Republican proposal changes three tax preferences, raising about $126 million.

Budget leaders still must negotiate a single spending plan that can pass both chambers, and any plan that calls for a change in the class reduction initiative voters approved last November will require a supermajority. After that deal is struck, the final budget must still be proofread and printed – a process that usually requires at least a day for a 500-plus page document that makes thousands of spending decisions – and legislative rules give lawmakers time to read it.

That timeline suggests the process will be difficult to finish by Saturday, something Hill seemed to acknowledge at a committee hearing Thursday afternoon.

“We anticipate finishing by Tuesday,” he said, then added, “or sooner.”

Tuesday is June 30, the last day of the current fiscal year, which makes it the eve of a partial government shutdown.

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