UPDATED: Is budget paralysis setting in at Capitol?

The OlympianMarch 28, 2011 

It's too early to say cryonics is at play. But House budget writers are slipping from their schedule for releasing a two-year budget at the state Capitol in Olympia. And signs of movement are getting slower and slower.

But what should anyone have expected? The Legislature's gears were bound to strip against the jagged surface of the March 17 revenue forecast. The forecast knocked away $780 million in expected revenue – leaving a budget hole of about $5.3 billion over 27 months and an extra round of cuts no one was really ready to carve.

"That is the stuff of which meltdowns are made," Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said Monday in the House wings. Darneille stood in an empty chamber as she spoke softly about the impact of losing $800 million in revenue during a budget-writing process that was already, in her words, "challenging."

"We still need a budget that can get 50 percent plus one," she said.

Darneille, the House Ways and Means vice chair, said she could not say if the budget would even emerge this week in draft form. A spokeswoman for the House Democratic Caucus echoed that later in an email that said it was not decided "which week it will be." This is the same group that once expected a hearing on its budget plan on March 29.

In other words, House Democrats are divided over what kinds of cuts will get enough votes in the majority House caucus to pass. And they don't even know when they'll know.

That's no cause for any alarm. In past years, biennial budgets haven't been released until late March or even April 1. In 2003, for instance, the House couldn't get a plan together and the Senate put its plan out first – on April 1. Two years ago the Senate went first on March 30. And in 2005, the Senate didn't get a budget out until March 28 – but it was waiting for first-year Gov. Chris Gregoire to put out her first budget, which she did on March 21.

But waiting until next week? That does put it a bit late – leaving less than three weeks to the scheduled end of session on April 24.

I asked House Ways and Means Committee chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, where he was going on the budget. Like a young man in a hurry, he pretended not to hear my question as he strode purposefully from a meeting with Speaker Frank Chopp and the House Democratic leadership.

"Did you say something?" he grinned, turning back to look at me. "I can't hear you."

That's not what Hunter does when he's got a story he wants you to hear.

It would be unusual for the Senate to jump ahead of the House at this point, but it's been done before. Hunter and Co. might first need to ask Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, is reportedly still working with Sen. Murray on a bipartisan budget cutting bill. What I hear is the Senate is not ready to jump in first.

But that could change.

I put in a call to Murray and Zarelli, but didn't hear back. I also tried to reach House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan and Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County.

Alexander did call back, and he wasn't too anxious – not yet. "I'm preparing to have our alternative available," Alexander said, referring to the House GOP plan to lay out a separate budget that bridges all of the gap and leaves as much as $880 million in reserves.

Alexander said he's been working with Hunter and that "there's five or six major issues that separate us in terms of principle and dollars."

As for the lull in action, Alexander said: "I sense that Ross has got to figure how to get votes. Chopp probably thinks he can put out a budget without our votes."

All told, Alexander said his differences with Hunter total "about a half-billion dollars. It's a big number." He said they are over questions whether to eliminate funding for the Disability Lifeline, which helps temporarily disabled people and those waiting for federal Social Security disability benefits; the Basic Health Plan, which offers subsidized health insurance to about 35,000 low-income workers; and support for undocumented residents.

In the meantime, anyone headed to a hearing at the Capitol this week might want to double-check for cancellations. There might be more (as budget-related bills pile up at the Ways and Means stoplights).

UPDATE: Sen. Murray just called and the Senate is waiting to see what the House produces. "Right now we're going to continue to wait. We're still working our own process. I'm going to give them the time," Murray said.

Sen. Zarelli said he also is waiting but said "of course" when asked if he was concerned by the slow down.

"The longer they string it out, the more likely we don't get out of here by the end of the month (April)," Zarelli said. "I think the reality of the House is setting in and people don't want to do things. Maybe they are pushing it off and want us to (go first). Given the reality and the way things are constructed, we really need them to put something out."

Zarelli remembers 2003 when the Senate ended up going first. "Although we got that budget out we were still here in June," he said. "That's why it's important to me that the House gets something out. They were the stumbling block then."

Like Murray, Zarelli confirmed the Senate Republicans and Democrats are working together on a budget plan that can get votes from each caucus.

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service