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Dispute over tax vote stalling Washington 2017-19 budget talks

UPDATED: Thu., April 6, 2017

At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee said legislators need to begin serious negotiations over the very different 2017-19 operating budgets passed by the Senate and House. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
At a press conference Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee said legislators need to begin serious negotiations over the very different 2017-19 operating budgets passed by the Senate and House. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Chances seemed slim Thursday the Legislature would reach a deal over Washington’s 2017-19 budget before the regular session ends in 17 days.

Gov. Jay Inslee and his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate insisted such a deal could be reached and a budget passed by April 23 if serious negotiations begin immediately.

“They have to swap paper and ideas and make some of these hard compromises,” Inslee said at a press conference. “There is not a reason to wait.”

But Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman John Braun, R-Centralia, later insisted there is one reason for the impasse. House Democrats have passed their budget, which would spend more money than the state is expected to take in over the next two years with its current tax system.

The House has separate legislation with several new taxes to pay for the remainder of its budget, but that bill has not come up for a vote, Braun said. Until the House passes those taxes, serious negotiations can’t take place, he insisted

“We’re not going to negotiate against ourselves,” he said. “We’ve been clear. We haven’t changed what we’ve been saying.”

In the meantime, members of the two budget committees can have “conversations,” he said.

At a press conference for Democratic legislators, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said he has the votes necessary to pass the tax package, but sees no reason to take that vote now. Besides, Chopp added, the Senate budget relies on one vote that wouldn’t be taken until November because it would send all tax increases to the voters through a referendum.

In previous years, House Democrats have passed tax packages and sent them to the Senate where majority Republicans refused to consider them.

Two years ago the vote on an increase in the gasoline tax and some other taxes and fees didn’t take place until after the transportation package that would spend that money was approved, said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

Both budgets also dip into a reserve fund, which requires a 60 percent supermajority, and neither chamber has passed that provision, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane. Serious negotiations should start on major policy decisions, including changes to the public school system to meet a state Supreme Court order.

“It’s not just the numbers that we’re far apart on,” Ormsby said at a separate press conference. The two budgets also have some areas where both the policies and the amounts spent are the same or nearly so, he added.

Braun countered that Senate Republicans have at least voted their proposal to tap the reserve fund out of a committee. Discussions about school reforms that meet the court order are occurring, he added.

On Thursday afternoon, Ormsby presented Braun with a set of potential “ground rules” for budget negotiations, but the talks themselves hadn’t been scheduled.

The Legislature has several other important issues it should address before going home for good, Inslee said. It should set up a new Department of Children and Family Services, change the driver’s license system to comply with a federal law on identification requirements, expand the rules against “distracted” driving from hand-held electronic devices, and improve efforts to combat homelessness and human trafficking, he said.

Lawmakers can deal with all of those, but should focus first on the court-ordered improvements for public education, and the budget which will include the money to pay for them, he said. The state must have a budget by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, and it’s already facing $100,000-per-day fines for not complying with the order.

Asked if he’d call a special session for any of the other issues he mentioned, Inslee replied: “I haven’t thought that through.”

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