The politically divided Washington Legislature winds down its 105-day regular session today without a two-year state budget and with few marquee bills to show for laboring in Olympia.
The Republican-steered Senate and Democrat-controlled House are miles apart on the central question of the day: whether to raise taxes to improve school funding and ward off further cuts in the social safety net.
Gov. Jay Inslee hasn’t said when he’ll call the recalcitrant parties back to town to settle differences in a special session. The first-year Democrat could bring back budget negotiators and let rank-and-file members stay home until there is clearer progress in talks that have really just begun after months of work to write and pass rival budget plans in the two chambers.
Inslee has been clear that he hopes to put at least $1 billion of new money into public schools in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in the McCleary case, which said the state was not adequately paying for basic education. To do that, Inslee would continue a tax surcharge on service businesses and close tax breaks for select industries including oil refineries — which Republicans in both houses say are bad ideas that could cost jobs.
“Our paramount duty in this state is to kids — not to tax breaks,” Inslee told a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 teachers and other members of the Washington Education Association during a rally Saturday on the Capitol steps.
Republicans aren’t interested, and leaders in the Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the Senate say their 23 Republican and two maverick Democratic members have been clear that new taxes are not needed to get new resources into schools.
A new budget is needed before the next budget cycle begins July 1.
“Once you start talking, you’re making progress. Not talking is a sign of lack of progress,’’ Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said Saturday, declining to get into details of talks that began in recent days. “You know there are significant differences. That’s no secret. But the people are meeting … that’s a fact. And I think they all have good intentions.’’
“We have a long way to go. This process is just getting underway,’’ House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said. “The fact we’re all in that room together — that’s progress.’’
Inslee’s budget director David Schumacher acknowledged the distance, saying: “We’re not within five days of a solution.”
Top differences boil down to the size of the budget and the need for taxes.
So far, only Democrats favor the plan that passed the House. It spends $34.5 billion from the state’s main checkbook — known as the general fund and related accounts — that pay for daily state operations, public schools, universities, prisons, courts, parks and some health programs. But that plan requires $1.1 billion or more in taxes to balance the books.
Republicans favor the $33.35 billion Senate plan that had no new taxes but relied on savings assumptions and efficiencies that are far from proven — and which Democratic leaders believe are a fantasy after years of repeated cuts to agency operations.
The GOP plan also makes a controversial raid of school construction funds and borrows money through bonds to refill the school building accounts, which even House Republicans don’t like. It also cuts again into social welfare programs that help disabled people awaiting Social Security assistance.
Inslee has been convening the meetings in his office and expects to keep doing that, according to aides. The governor’s sights are set beyond the current two-year budget, knowing the state needs to raise its public school investment in each of the next three budget cycles because of the McCleary ruling.
“We’re looking for what is achievable. We want to make sure we get to a reasonable McCleary number, knowing that whatever we don’t do this biennium makes next year that much harder,” budget director Schumacher said. “This is a multiyear problem that doesn’t go away.’’
But how Inslee decides to manage the upcoming negotiations is undecided — in terms of when to bring lawmakers back to town. Schoesler — whose Majority Coalition Caucus has kept united in its opposition to taxes so far — says a large number of its members need to be involved in the budget calculations. And that means they want Inslee keeping everyone in town and starting the special session right away.
House Democrats have not laid out such a firm position, and Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray of Seattle said he has members who have postponed medical procedures and could use a break to get them done.
“It doesn’t matter to me when the governor calls back the full Legislature. I will continue to work on the budget every day until the Legislature comes to some resolution,” said Republican Rep. Gary Alexander, the top House GOP budget negotiator.
BEYOND THE BUDGET
A budget is not the only thing still left to do. The House and Senate were poised today to finish passage of an $8.8 billion, no-new-taxes transportation plan, and talks on a gas tax package for major projects will be part of a special session.
Inslee also has been trying to keep alive a handful of bills that keep repeat drunken drivers from getting behind the wheel of a car, keep guns out of the hands of those who are unstable, ensure that abortion is a choice women have in insurance plans, and let undocumented students brought here by their parents at a young age qualify for college financial aid.
Republicans want to block tax increases, boost education funding, and further cut the size of a state government that is already so slimmed by the Great Recession that it is staffed at late-1990s levels.
The GOP also wants changes that cut the costs of doing business — whether in workers’ compensation or regulations. Schoesler said the Senate also wants to pass a bill that would let the state’s never-implemented paid-family-leave law expire in four years if no funding source is found for it.
“The only thing we have to get done is the budget and anything needed to implement that. We have to focus on that,” House Majority Leader Sullivan said. “The more items you throw into the mix, the harder it is to get done. … I think we should focus on that budget and not get bogged down on other bills.’’
Some people are hunkering down. “I think it’ll be a long time” to get to a solution, said Nick Federici, who lobbies for human services groups and has testified several times this year in favor of higher taxes and fewer spending cuts. “This is my 19th session lobbying, and I don’t think I’ve seen them so far apart on so many things so late in the year.”
Special sessions are not unusual — and history over the past 30 years shows they are common when financial crises loom or when the Legislature is divided between the parties.
Divided government and financial squeezes both are in play this year. That is why after the Majority Coalition Caucus formed in January, veteran observers knew early on that the Legislature would never get done on time.Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/politicsblog blog.thenewstribune.com/stateworkers @BradShannon2