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Wednesday, October 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New budget proposal released on day 1 of special session

OLYMPIA – A budget proposal released the morning after Washington lawmakers were called into a special session drops some of the most controversial elements of an earlier Senate Republican spending plan.

It’s a big enough change that House Democrats said lawmakers would be shaking hands on a budget deal if they had seen it earlier in the week. They accused Senate Republicans of “walking away from the table” – abandoning the ongoing closed-door budget talks and negotiating in public.

“We could actually be done,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “You have to be at the table.”

Senate Republicans countered that the proposal wasn’t finished until Friday morning, but they gave House Democrats a “heads-up” Thursday evening and accused their counterparts of making such small movement in the private talks that they decided to release their latest offer.

“We felt it was the right time to share with the public,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia. “We are not going to negotiate with ourselves.”

The latest Senate Republican offer drops a plan to merge two of the state’s oldest pension systems, one for school employees and another for police and firefighters, to provide long-term savings. That merger was controversial with pension recipients and even some members of their own party; it isn’t part of the budget passed by House Democrats.

The new proposal also would use money from a reserve account, often called the Rainy Day Fund, to pay the costs of fighting last year’s wildfires and some programs to cut the risk of future fires. House Democrats did want to use the Rainy Day Fund for that.

It increases state money to some mental health and low-income health care programs, overtime for home health care providers and the College Bound program. House Democrats said they think the final deal should spend more to fight a teacher shortage in public schools and on health care and women’s reproductive health.

Senate Democrats reiterated that a supplemental budget, basically an update of the two-year general fund budget approved last year, should not take on new major programs but instead focus on unexpected expenses and one-time emergency costs.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing on the budget Friday afternoon, about three hours after the 340-page document was released. Negotiations could take place over the weekend, but both sides said none had been scheduled as of Friday afternoon.

The budget sparring occurred the day after the Legislature ran out of time in its regular session and was immediately called into special session by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Late Thursday night, the governor vetoed 27 bills, making good on a threat to take action if lawmakers needed to go into overtime to agree to a supplemental budget.

“Legislators have one fundamental task that they are required to do every session,” Inslee told reporters. That task is to adopt a budget, he said.

This year’s supplemental budget involved “relatively minor adjustments and a very small number of urgent issues,” Inslee said. It should have been “relatively light lifting” compared to previous years.

Lawmakers have needed to extend their regular session with at least one overtime session in six of the last seven years. “You don’t like to see habits become perpetuated,” Inslee said.

Because of a flurry of legislative action last week, Inslee had 37 bills on his desk that were going to become law, even without his signature, at midnight Thursday. He signed 10, which he said were important for public health and safety or law enforcement. They include laws on human trafficking, mortgage lending fraud, luring minors and National Guard employment rights.

His veto messages on the other 27 said each was “worthy” but “until a budget agreement is reached, I cannot support this bill.” They include proposals on pharmacy assistants, marijuana research licenses, hemp growing, cultural foods, local government treasuries and wholesale auto dealer licenses. The auto dealer bill would have changed rules significantly and likely would have forced a Chicago-based business with an office in Wilbur, Washington, to close in the state.

Lawmakers could try to override the vetoes, which would require two-thirds majorities in both chambers. Inslee said he hoped they would concentrate instead on passing a budget.

Under state law, they’ll have up to 30 days in the special session to find a budget compromise. Even if they settle on a budget compromise in a few days, which the governor said is possible, and pass it soon after, they could remain in Olympia to pass new versions of the vetoed bills, which would only require simple majorities.

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