Minority Republicans and three rebel Democrats took over the state Senate floor Friday and were working toward approval of a budget plan kept under wraps until the coup began.
The blow-up killed a series of bills that needed votes before a 5 p.m. deadline, and Senate budget chairman Ed Murray said it would send lawmakers into special session. As of The Olympian’s print deadline, lawmakers had not yet taken a vote on the budget.
Most lawmakers had never seen anything like the move.
Republicans said they were just breaking through gridlock. Senate GOP Leader Mike Hewitt said Democrats didn’t have 25 votes to move their version of the budget out of the Ways and Means Committee this afternoon, and Republicans didn’t either. So the time was right to push the matter to the floor after seeing GOP ideas snubbed in a budget the Democrats rolled out Tuesday, he said.
“It’s very hard for me to listen to (complaints about short notice). We’ve been down here since December, trying to work together, exactly like we did last year, and we had absolutely no cooperation whatsoever – none,” said Hewitt, of Walla Walla. GOP budget negotiator Joe Zarelli “has presented idea after idea and absolutely none of them were accepted. So we have chosen to take this method.”
The Republicans were able to take control because centrist Democrats took advantage of their party’s slim 27-22 majority. Last year, the moderates flexed their muscle by forcing Murray and Zarelli to work hand in hand crafting spending cuts. This year, the bipartisanship took a new form.
“This is an incredible abuse of power,” Murray said. “And considering what my party and myself as chair was willing to do this is the payback. This is the response.”
Murray said Republicans did not negotiate in good faith and criticized Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Jim Kastama of Puyallup, who defected along with maverick Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.
Murray said Tom and Kastama had told him they were still open to voting for the Democrats’ budget as long as the right reform bills were enacted. Some of them, like a pension overhaul that Republicans managed to pull to the floor along with the budget, hadn’t budged in the Senate. Two of Kastama’s bills – one requiring a balanced four-year budget and another meant to get rid of ineffective programs – are stalled in the House.
“There hasn’t been one of those reforms passed. Not one,” Kastama said. And while he did remain open to Murray’s budget if his demands were met: “I was very upfront with leadership that I was looking at all of the options.”
The coalition used a rarely used procedural Senate move to push their budget straight to the floor before it had a hearing or lawmakers had even read it. That prompted complaints from Democrats, even though they have given short notice on hearings and votes in recent years.
“The fact that these members are expected to vote on it when they’ve never seen it – something’s wrong here,” Gov. Chris Gregoire told reporters.
Democrats countered with more parliamentary moves. Democratic Floor Leader Tracey Eide demanded a full reading of the 235-page budget in an attempt to delay the vote. She halted it after two clerks had read about 34 pages.
Republicans say their approach to the budget saves help for vulnerable people, protects so-called “critical access” hospitals and leaves more reserves than the Democrats’ plan. They also avoid a gimmick used by Senate Democrats to delay $330 million in payments to school districts until the next budget cycle.
“Once you analyze this (alternative) budget, people are going to like it,” Hewitt told reporters.
But the GOP plan skips a $130 million payment into the state’s two under-funded pension plans (Teachers Retirement System 1 and Public Employees Retirement System 1). It kills off medical coverage in the Disability Lifeline for people temporarily unable to work, and it trims $44 million from K-12 education, $30 million from higher education and $311 million from social services including child-care subsidies for the working poor.
The move might keep lawmakers in Olympia past the March 8 scheduled end of the 60-day term.
“We are going into special session,” Murray of Seattle said flatly.
“What we are doing today is not leading us into special session. It has the potential to keep us from special session,” Zarelli said.
If Republicans succeed in passing their budget, it runs into a wall in the House, where Democrats have large majorities and do not want to pass some of the reforms sought by Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org