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Friday, April 3, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington budget talks likely to take second special session

OLYMPIA – Legislators reached a key milestone in the special session over the budgets, but unfortunately it was not the milestone of having a negotiated agreement that would allow them to finish their work by May 28, the 30th and final day of the session.

Rather, it was the milestone at which they offer tantalizing tidbits about each other’s proposals, but decline to go into specifics because “we don’t negotiate in the media.”

This is a mantra regularly employed by legislators who are, in fact, negotiating in the media by accusing the other side of profligate overspending or extreme chintziness, accounting sleights of hand or general fecklessness. House Democratic leaders or Senate Republican leaders have accused each other of one or more of these at some point in recent weeks during a session that could thus far only be described as “special” by constitutional edict or ironic exultation from the Church Lady.

Senate Republican leaders went a step further in their castigations at a news conference last week, bemoaning what they described as a paucity of serious offers from the other side. Sen. John Braun, the vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said while his side has made “two significant offers” – one during the regular session and one in the special – House Democrats had only made one and it would spend more than the budget they had passed in the regular session rather than less.

“We can’t keep making offers if they’re not willing to make offers in the other direction,” Braun said. Two weeks into the special session, they weren’t actually negotiating a budget, he explained; they were reviewing the two spending plans section-by-section to understand each other’s assumptions. That’s all they could do until House Democrats either passed the tax increases needed to make their budget balance, or cut that money out of their spending plan, he insisted.

Two days later, House Democrats flatly rejected a couple of Braun’s characterizations. Senate Republicans hadn’t made two offers, they made the same offer twice, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said. And the House counteroffer didn’t raise spending, it reduced it.

He declined to say which concessions they made, or by how much because “We’re not going to negotiate the budget in public.” But they were going to send over another offer later in the day.

Sullivan agreed they weren’t negotiating, even in private, just going through the budgets section by section. He put the onus for that dilatory activity squarely on Republicans, whom he accused of stalling until Monday when state economists issue the next estimate of tax revenue for the coming years in hopes that it is up.

Although budgets are complicated, whether the Republicans made two different offers or just one, or the Democrats’ offer raised or lowered spending, wouldn’t take an accountant, just a perusal of paperwork. Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, who participated in the news conference, suggested the media ask the Republicans for their offers; the media suggested House Democrats release them, since they had them.

No, said Sullivan, but if Republicans release offers they had made, Democrats would do likewise.

That provided a brief glimmer of hope for an otherwise hopeless task of giving the public a look at what – if anything – is going on with the budget. Senate Republicans, after all, are big fans of opening up one of the driving factors of the budget, contract talks between state employees’ unions and the governor’s office. Perhaps they’d like to show how a little sunlight is a good thing for negotiations.

But Sullivan’s suggestion got no traction with Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler. When told there were significant discrepancies between the way the two sides were describing their respective offers, he preferred to trust Braun and budget chairman Andy Hill that the Democrats’ counter raised spending rather than lowered it. The “we’ll show you ours if they show you theirs” proposal was no more sincere than passing a budget without passing the necessary taxes, he insisted.

Legislators will, instead, continue to grind their way through the process, he said.

At this rate, they’ll likely grind far into June, in a second special session.

Coming this week

Monday: The state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council releases estimates on the amount of taxes and fees the state will collect in the next two and four years, a key element in setting the state’s operating budget.

Tuesday: The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee holds a hearing on a proposal to penalize public school teachers who go out on one-day strikes.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, appears online with daily items and reader comments at blogs/spincontrol.

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