OLYMPIA – Although legislative leaders continued to insist Tuesday they were close to shaking hands on a budget deal that would stave off a partial government shutdown, they also made a bit of unwelcome history.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, they had gone later into a year without agreeing at least “in principle” to a deal on an operating budget that would keep a major portion of state government running passed Friday.
Prospects of an agreement on the two-year budget were described in a range from “incredibly close” to “big things to decide” by legislators with knowledge of the talks.
Negotiators said they would talk through the night if necessary, trying to reach a deal by Wednesday morning on a spending plan of between $43.3 billion and $44.9 billion. Those were the amounts that the Senate and House approved, respectively, when each passed a budget in late March for the bulk of state services in the coming biennium.
At 3 p.m. Tuesday, a pair of House Democrats involved in the negotiations said there was no agreement yet on a dollar figure for the budget.
“We still have some big things to decide,” said Finance Committee Chairwoman Kristine Lytton, of Anacortes.
Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman June Robinson, D-Everett, estimated that included “10 really big, thorny issues.”
Lytton, also a member of the group negotiating major policy changes for the state’s public school system – an area that takes up roughly 50 percent of the budget – said those discussions have “some very small things to settle.” An agreement on that piece of the budget might be reached late Tuesday, she said.
Because negotiations over the budget, the major revision in public school policy ordered by the Washington Supreme Court, and other changes in state programs all are conducted behind closed doors, lawmakers do not discuss specifics.
The closest the state has come to a partial shutdown was in 2015, when Gov. Jay Inslee signed the 2015-17 operating budget at 11:40 p.m. on June 30. That year, negotiators announced an agreement on their spending plan – which did not have a complicated and potentially controversial revision in public school policy – by midafternoon on June 27.
As that time marker slipped by Tuesday, Inslee told reporters he knew legislators were working hard to get an agreement that could pass and be signed before midnight Friday, avoiding a partial state government shutdown. The state starts its new fiscal year on July 1, and without a budget it wouldn’t have the legal authority to spend money on some programs and salaries.
“I’m eager to get news that I hope will be forthcoming,” Inslee said.
Some 32,000 state employees have received notices temporary layoffs would start Saturday if a budget isn’t in place by Friday night. If negotiators who represent the leadership of both parties in both chambers announce they have reached a deal in principle, the governor’s office will alert state employees that they can expect to come to work as usual, even though the budget must still pass the Legislature.
“We don’t have that level of confidence yet,” said David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff.
Early in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, described a budget agreement as “incredibly close,” saying negotiators were “getting into the minutiae of making the budget work.”
A few minutes later, Appropriations Committee Chairman Timm Ormsby of Spokane, who serves on the House Democrats’ budget team, said lawmakers could have a “handshake deal” Tuesday but wouldn’t use a description as optimistic as Schoesler.
“We have a path to success,” Ormsby said, although negotiators had not agreed on all the sources of revenue to cover the costs of everything in the budget.
Tuesday marked the 172nd day the Legislature has been in session, with the budget and reform of public school policy among the main topics of discussion for much of that time. Schoesler said the extra time was needed to revamp the state’s public schools, not for some minor dispute.
“This is a generational problem we’re solving in K-12,” Schoesler said.
Ormsby said it’s also a function of divided government in the state. Democrats have a two-seat majority in the House and a Republican-led coalition has a one-seat majority in the Senate.
After a deal is reached among negotiators, each budget section must be assembled, checked and printed, then introduced and passed in each chamber with the same wording. There will likely be no time for public hearings, and limited time for review by the Office of Financial Management.
The process typically takes at least three days, leading legislators to say Wednesday morning is the practical deadline for such an agreement to move the process into the next phase – although some sources hinted it could be done in slightly less time if necessary.