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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Special session starts with no sign of budget negotiations

The Washington Senate opens the special session on Monday morning, April 24, 2017, with a mostly empty chamber, with Sens. Joe Fain (standing, at right), David Frockt and Sharon Nelson at their desks and Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib and the Senate administrative staff at the rostrum and caucus staff in the wings. Sen. Bob Hasegawa was also in the back of the chamber. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA –The Legislature’s special session opened quietly Monday morning to mostly empty chambers and routine paperwork.

The gavel came down to open the session promptly at 10 a.m. in the Senate, with four of the state’s 49 senators, Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib and members of the chamber’s administrative and caucus staffs present.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Joe Fain, R-Auburn, ran through several routine matters.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, made a short speech commending Seattle police officers who responded to a robbery last week and were wounded.

Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, mentioned distinguished visitors from the People’s Republic of China were in the gallery, which was almost as empty as the Senate floor.

Fain then moved to adjourn until 9:25 a.m. Wednesday, when the Senate is expected to have a similarly uneventful session. Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib banged the gavel again, and it was over.

The House also had a quick “pro forma” session. It will come back at 9:55 a.m. Wednesday for another brief session.

The Legislature was called into its seventh special session in eight years because lawmakers haven’t agreed on a 2017-19 operating budget, which is expected to exceed $43 billion. The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, and the House, controlled by Democrats, have passed two very different budgets that don’t agree on all spending priorities or how to come up with the extra money needed to pay for everything.

On Friday, the last day most lawmakers were present, Senate Republicans tried to make a point on taxes House Democrats have proposed but say they will not bring to a vote until a budget deal is reached. They brought versions of tax proposals on a capital gains tax and changes to the state’s business and occupation tax to a vote in the Senate, where both failed 0-48.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman John Braun, R-Centralia, said during that debate that the bills’ failure could allow lawmakers to set them aside “and we can truly begin negotiations for our operating budget.”

But Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, called the vote a “political stunt” and said Monday that even though the taxes failed on Friday they could have support if they are necessary to pay for something in a negotiated budget. The property tax increase needed to pay for the Senate Republicans’ budget wouldn’t be able to pass on its own, and relies on approval by the voters in November, she said.

Budget negotiations have not yet been scheduled, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane. A group discussing improvements to the state’s public school system, and the money that would be needed to pay for them, is expected to meet Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, he said, but there are no formal negotiations on the remainder of the 2017-19 operating budget.

Ormsby called the Senate vote on the House tax proposals political theater, but rejected any suggestion that Democrats jump-start the negotiations by submitting a revised budget. The House passed the budget most recently, so traditionally it would be the Senate that would make the next offer.

For the House to submit a new budget at this point would be “negotiating against ourselves,” Ormsby said.

That’s the same phrase Senate Republican budget leaders use when explaining why they can’t go into budget negotiations unless the House can pass the taxes connected to its budget proposal.