Politics & Government

Special session to address budget set for Saturday

State lawmakers are heading into session for a one-day special session that starts Saturday morning – for what appears to be the first in history for a Washington lame-duck Legislature.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and leaders from the four caucuses announced late this afternoon that they will begin work at 9 a.m. Saturday and try to finish the same day. A tentative deal that is supposed to be approved without amendments is expected to shave $590 million off the $1.1 billion deficit that the state faces through June.

The Democratic governor is separately cutting $200 million more through across-the-board cuts ordered in September, bringing total reductions in the budget gap to about $790 million. Her budget team is separately working on closing a shortfall of about $5 billion for the following two-year budget.

“Legislators understand the challenging economic times we’re in, and the significant shortfall our state faces this fiscal year,” Gregoire said in a formal statement after the agreement. “Their bipartisan agreement solves more than half of our current budget shortfall – and provides the momentum they need to develop a supplemental budget when they return for the regular session in January.”

“I think it’ll be a very long day,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said, outlining a full day of hearings and floor action in both legislative chambers. “But it’s possible to do all those things in one day.”

Brown and other lawmakers including Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla and House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said they expect members of both parties to support the measure.

“It’s going to be a bipartisan vote. We haven’t had a vote count in our caucus, but there is a lot of support for what (Rep.) Gary Alexander has been doing” in negotiations, DeBolt said. “I think it’ll be a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans. It’ll be a pretty strong vote.”

If the lawmakers are right about two-party support of the cuts, it will be a major change of pace after lopsidedly partisan votes in recent years to pass budgets in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate.

House Democrats went over details of a possible agreement earlier in the day, but Majority Leader Pat Sullivan had said at the time that his caucus – like the House Republicans’ – was still a long way from taking a vote on it. That apparently changed during the day.

The budget-cutting agreement would spare a cut to the “levy equalization” subsidy to low-tax school districts, most of them in rural areas. And it would reduce but not eliminate the subsidized Basic Health Plan for low-income workers. It also would reduce cash grants in the Disability Lifeline, which provides health care and retraining for people temporarily unable to work or help as they wait for disability coverage from the Social Security Administration.

DeBolt said home health care and nursing home cuts weren’t as drastic as feared, either.

Gregoire spokesman Cory Curtis said the $790 million includes $200 million of across-the-board cuts Gregoire already ordered in September and $583.5 million in cuts and fund shifts that lawmakers would approve. The latter includes $208 million in federal education money provided as a supplement to the federal stimulus package during the summer.

On the other hand, the proposed agreement would eliminate $39.2 million in class-size enhancements for lower grades in public schools and would carry out $13.8 million worth of temporary layoffs at the Department of Social and Health Services.

Gregoire told reporters that if all goes well “and the creeks don’t rise,” lawmakers should be able to complete their work in one day – although she said she wasn’t sure how late they’d work.

“I think that none of us really relishes some of these budget reductions because they are going to affect people,” Brown said, echoing comments Gregoire made in a short appearance with legislative leaders and reporters. “They are going to affect people’s health care and what they live on, and some people will lose their jobs.”

Brown said the agreement is for no amendments – except technical changes or editing. Lawmakers said the House plans hearings on the budget bill and the Senate plans hearings on two other bills – one for the Revenue Department and one on education – before they move the measures to floor votes in both chambers.

Two history buffs – House Republican Caucus attorney Allen Hayward and Patrick McDonald, special assistant to the secretary of state – said it appears no other legislature in Washington history has met in a lame-duck special session this late in the year.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688bshannon@theolympian.comwww.theolympian.com/politicsblog