Politics & Government

State Legislature to head into special session to solve budget stalemate

Frost covers the sundial in front of the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Frost covers the sundial in front of the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) AP

Overtime yet again.

In what has become more or less a yearly tradition, Washington lawmakers will use a special legislative session to finish writing a budget. It is the seventh time in 10 years.

The culprit this go-round? An extended debate over how to meet a Washington Supreme Court order to fix the way the state pays for K-12 schools.

Without agreement on how much money is needed for schools, or where that money should come from, lawmakers will continue talks on a compromise budget past the 105-day deadline for a regular session.

While the Legislature hasn’t officially adjourned the regular session — that is planned for Sunday — Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Friday he plans to call an overtime session to begin at 10 a.m. Monday.

“This job cannot wait,” Inslee said, adding he is frustrated that lawmakers haven’t started formal budget negotiations.

“Both sides are going to have to move fairly dramatically in order to reach an agreement here,” the Democratic governor said.

“I’m doing everything I can humanly imagine to do — you know, short of waterboarding — to get these folks to negotiate.”

In the McCleary school-funding case, the state Supreme Court ruled Washington needs to pay for the full cost of teacher and school administrator salaries that now are unconstitutionally supplemented by local levies.

The majority Democrat House and the GOP-led Senate have put out competing budget proposals for paying for public schools that sharply differ on a few key aspects.

The House plan would implement a host of new taxes, including one on capital gains, as well as a tax increase on high-earning businesses. Democrats would raise about $3 billion in new revenue in the next two years.

Republicans, who control the Senate with help of one conservative Democrat, are proposing a new statewide property tax to help replace local levies. That plan would raise about $1.5 billion in the next two years.

Unlike the House Democratic plan, the Senate GOP proposal would eliminate local school-district property tax levies for one year, then allow districts to start raising local levies again at more modest levels starting in 2020.

The House Democrats’ proposal would reduce school districts’ local taxing authority slightly, but not by nearly as much as the Republican plan.

GOP leaders also want their tax overhaul to be sent to voters for final approval, while Democrats want the Legislature to make the final decision.

Progress toward finding a compromise has been sluggish.

Formal negotiations have been obstructed in recent weeks because the two parties have been bickering over the legitimacy of the dueling proposals.

Republicans say they can’t start budget negotiations because House Democrats won’t vote on the new taxes in their spending plan. Democrats say the Republican tax plan relies on nonexistent money because it relies on voter approval to be implemented.

Later Friday, the GOP took the debate one step further: Senate Republicans held floor votes on a new capital gains tax and business tax increase proposed by Democrats with full intentions of voting them down.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville, said in a speech the move was needed to “find out how many votes are here for those taxes” from Democrats.

Both votes failed 0-48.

State Sen. Marko Liias, the Democratic floor leader, dismissed the GOP tactics as a “political stunt” not helpful to finding a budget compromise. Democrats wouldn’t vote for “taxes for taxes sake” without a budget plan to accompany them, he said in a later floor speech.

In anticipation of the tax votes, state Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, tried to ease concerns over whether the seemingly disparate political sides can ever compromise.

“This will all work out,” he told reporters, “and it’s worked out every time since 1889,” the year Washington became a state. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to work out this time as well.”

Staff writer Melissa Santos contributed to this report.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

When legislative sessions ended

2008: Regular session

2009: Regular session

2010: Two special sessions

2011: Two special sessions

2012: Two special sessions

2013: Three special sessions

2014: Regular session

2015: Three special sessions

2016: One special session

Source: Legislative Information Center