Politics & Government

Governor plans special 1-day session

Gov. Chris Gregoire says she will call a one-day special session of the Legislature to take place by mid-May, but she first wants Democratic leaders to agree on a scaled-down agenda.

Lawmakers left town early Monday after 105 days, but they left at least three bills unpassed that are needed to implement the $31.4 billion, two-year state operating budget. In a nod to narrowing down the agenda of a special session, Gregoire dropped a climate-change bill from the mix.

“But I hope to bring them back and I’ll tell you candidly what my goal is: They come in in the morning, and they leave that day,” Gregoire said after signing bills at her office this week. “I don’t want this to be an extended debate or a long session, so I’m asking them to sort out their differences before they come back.”

Aides say Gregoire was talking late Thursday to House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, both Democrats, on timing and issues to address. But no agreement was reached, and neither Brown nor Chopp could be reached immediately to comment.

Three bills are likely – one that would deal with limits on school levies, one that would allow immediate deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, and one that would reduce minimum sentences for certain drug offenses. All three died late Sunday as the House and the Senate tangled on an unrelated bill that dealt with utilities and renewable energy.

House Bill 1776 would let school districts collect more money from levies approved by voters – even if the money exceeds a 24 percent state cap on how much of a district’s funds can come from local property taxes. But Gregoire is having second thoughts about a second part of that bill, which would trigger a $60.3 million cut in levy equalization funds appropriated in the state budget.

Levy equalization helps tax-poor districts that pass levies, and many are in rural areas. Republicans have blasted the idea of a special session, especially the idea of cutting levy equalization funds while giving richer districts an increase in levy collections.

“There’s simply no reason for legislators to come back to town to consider measures that will cost taxpayers even more money – especially at a cost of $20,000 a day” for a special session, Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla said in a statement.

Gregoire aide Karina Shagren said Gregoire still is trying to find a way to come up with the $60 million levy equalization funds if that bill is changed.

Many school districts have begun to identify the number of job cuts they will have to make as a result of state budget cuts linked to the economic downturn.

TIMED FOR SCHOOLS

Gregoire wants to hold the special session by mid-May, “because the school districts have to get their layoff notices out by the middle of May. She wants that levy stuff resolved prior to that,” Shagren said Thursday. “… Obviously she doesn’t want the layoff notices to go out if they don’t have to.”

Gregoire also said this week that she needs help from lawmakers in case the state revenue outlook worsens in the June and September forecasts. The state’s collections in March fell by more than $50 million below recent forecasts, and she wants a way to avoid calling lawmakers back again to adjust the budget if that downward trend continues.

“We have about $250 million that was left in the rainy day fund that I cannot tap myself. (Also) they left a very healthy reserve of about $570 million,” Gregoire said this week, referring to the $820 million set aside in the budget. “So I’m asking them to consider a back-up plan that would be instructive to me as to where they’d like to see additional cuts made if that becomes necessary.”

But Brown, D-Spokane, has been chilly toward the idea of leaving cut decisions to the governor.

Lifting the limits on levies would produce $68.6 million statewide for 75 school districts, including Seattle, $14 million; Sumner, $8.2 million; Puyallup, $4.5 million; Olympia, $3.3 million; Auburn, $2.64 million; North Thurston, $2.1 million; and Tacoma, $1.7 million.

“I can’t tell you now how many jobs it means, but it will be sizable, in terms of layoffs,” Gregoire told reporters this week.

But without changes to the levy equalization in the budget, some districts would suffer a net loss of funding. The Rochester School District in rural southwest Thurston County, for instance, would gain $4,957 from lifting the levy limit but lose $190,165 in levy equalization.

A medium-size district like Tumwater would gain $890,455 from the levy lift but lose $255,906 in equalization. Tacoma would see its $1.7 million levy lift offset by $1.07 million less in equalization dollars.

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