Sales tax hike dropped

Senate and House Democrats moved closer Wednesday to a tax-package deal - one that doesn't include a sales-tax increase.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, confirmed that a sales-tax increase was not in the newest compromise tax plan being considered by lawmakers.

House and Senate Democratic leaders were counting votes on the newest offer, but the evaporation of a sales-tax hike could be enough to resolve an impasse that has dragged on the current 30-day special session within a week of its final deadline.

Between phone calls to brief her caucus members, an optimistic Brown said she and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, expected to meet with Gov. Chris Gregoire later in the day to possibly cement a deal on the roughly $800 million revenue package. “We’re going to get together, regroup at the end of the day and see if we can shake hands,” she said.

Chopp, Brown and Gregoire did meet in Gregoire’s office late Wednesday afternoon, but Chopp and Brown slipped out a back door to avoid reporters waiting outside. Chopp’s spokeswoman, Melinda McCrady, said that Chopp planned to have a conference call with several House members Wednesday night, but that no official agreement would be announced before today.

Gregoire’s spokeswoman, Karina Shagren, said that the governor wouldn’t comment on what was said in the meeting, but “she’s still optimistic that a deal is going to be brokered and is confident the speaker and majority leader will do what they need to do to reach an end.”

Democratic leaders have struggled to agree on a revenue package to help balance the state budget’s projected $2.8 billion deficit through June 2011. Brown didn’t offer specific details other than the lack of a sales tax and the $800 million overall price tag.

Lawmakers have agreed on the general outlines of a budget-balancing plan that combines spending cuts, federal bailouts and one-time accounting maneuvers with about $800 million in tax increases.

But the details of how to build that tax package have vexed legislative leaders and Gregoire all year, pushing their budget work into a 30-day special session that expires Tuesday.

Gregoire, who also is a Democrat, said earlier Wednesday that the newest offer was not what either chamber or she had wanted. Her message to lawmakers: “I’m not asking that you love it. I’m asking that you pass it, so we can get out of town.”

The previous significant movement in tax negotiations came Monday, when Senate Democrats offered a new proposal that hiked taxes on mass-market beer – microbrews would be exempt – but kept an increase in the state sales tax.

House officials and Gregoire, however, have been firm in their opposition to a sales-tax increase. Gregoire also has threatened that she could be forced to make across-the-board spending cuts of 20 percent if lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement in the current special session.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle and the Senate majority caucus chair, said Tuesday that the negotiating process had been moving slowly.

“You go back and forth on proposals,” he said. “… You go back to your caucus and you move little bit here and move a little bit there. Ultimately, nobody is going to be happy.”