A special legislative session kicked off Tuesday with senators quickly sending one of the most contentious measures of the regular session back to the House.
The Senate passed a constitutional amendment that would limit the state’s debt, a measure that has delayed passage of the $3 billion construction budget. House lawmakers gathered for meetings, but most will head home while negotiators try to reach agreements with the Senate.
The regular session adjourned last Friday without a final state budget proposal. Lawmakers are tasked with closing a projected deficit of about $5.3 billion in the next two-year budget.
A Senate budget proposal slashes $4.8 billion in spending. The House’s bid cuts costs by $4.4 billion.
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the Democrats’ Senate budget lead, expects a counter-offer from the House soon.
Sticking points in negotiations include a gap of about $300 million between the House and Senate budgets. Initially, the House budget included a proposal to privatize the distribution of liquor, assuming a one-time payment of $300 million. House leadership has signaled that they don’t like a $250 million cut the Senate proposes to K-12 education.
“To me, the first move is agreeing on spending level, a reserve level, and to accomplish that, the House is going to have to discard the extra $300 million in spending because we don’t have that,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, RRidgefield, the GOP’s top budget negotiator.
The Senate sent back to the House a constitutional amendment that would shrink the state’s debt limit from 9 percent of state revenue to 7 percent over the next two years. It would smooth out the state’s investment in construction projects by basing that 7 percent calculation on a 10-year rolling average of state revenue, rather than its current three-year rolling average.
Supporters say that lowering debt will free money in the operating budget that could be used elsewhere. Senators say that they won’t advance the state’s $3 billion construction budget unless the House approves the amendment.
House leaders say the amendment could lead to the use of leases and revenue bonds, which are more expensive than general obligation bonds and are not addressed in the amendment’s proposed limit.
Should the constitutional amendment pass the Legislature, it would need a majority approval for voters to be implemented.
A special session technically lasts 30 days.