Budget talks are quietly taking place at the Capitol in the first three days of special session. House budget negotiators led by Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter sent an offer to the Senate Thursday morning. And the Senate was working to send back an answer, Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said a few hours later.
The House proposal crafted by Hunter, a Medina Democrat, was in response to the Senate’s bipartisan vote last week to approve a $32.1 billion spending plan that Senate Democrats and Republicans crafted jointly to cover the next 26 months.
The Senate plan includes several elements the House hates – including pay cuts for public school employees, putting the State Motor Pool and real-estate contracts management out to the private sector. Both budgets go light on ending programs completely.
Measuring the progress made by Murray, Senate Republicans' top negotiator Joe Zarelli and Hunter is hard to gauge – and it will be for much of the remaining 30-day special session that began Tuesday. The Senate heard a few bills in committee and passed a few others Thursday before adjourning until May 2, while the House went on a rolling recess and is expected to meet in full session Monday.
In the meantime, Murray declined to say where the House and Senate were moving closer.
Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla said his minority caucus remains at the table to co-author the Senate spending plan. He said he remains on the same page with Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, on policies that can reduce state costs over the long term (he did not itemize).
Murray had a working lunch with Hunter Thursday and they plan to meet daily until they forge a budget agreement they can take to rank-and-file lawmakers for a vote.
But no one is talking about achieving major breakthroughs any time soon, and Hewitt is assuming the session runs the whole 30 days.
Overall, the Senate cuts $4.8 billion compared to $4.4 billion in the House. The two budgets are reasonably close on the bottom line – about $330 million apart with the Senate weighing in at around $32.13 billion in general fund spending compared to $32.44 billion for the House.
A major difference is the House penciled in $300 million in new revenue from a possible lease of the state liquor distribution operation to a private firm. Gov. Chris Gregoire said that proposal does not pencil out in the state's financial favor, and she says the same about a rival proposal from Costco that puts the entire liquor retail and wholesale operation out to the private sector.
Overall, the Senate goes further in cuts to higher education. But both chambers jack up tuition – by up to 16 percent in the Senate and up to 13 percent in the House.
Both chambers' bills reduce funding for public schools – that is, if one counts the plan to suspend more than $1 billion in K-12 spending for cost-of-living pay increases and class size reductions that two decade-old initiatives require. Both budgets limit bonuses for national board certified teachers and limit funding for all-day kindergarten.
One compromise on education could be a shorter school year. But the governor is unlikely to support it, fearing lawsuits.
Both budgets shrink the staffing at state agencies and colleges. Cuts total 1,359 full-time equivalent positions in the House proposal and 1,529 FTEs in the Senate. That compares to the 108,293 full-time equivalent workers that the Office of Financial Management said were on the state payroll in general government, transportation and higher education agencies in January.
The Senate also wants 3 percent pay cuts for K-12 employees on top of the 3 percent reductions in pay and hours that Gov. Gregoire negotiated with most state labor unions. The House conversely wants to do away with yearly "step" increases to teachers that are based on years worked and added educational achievements. The Senate plan saves some $300 million in pay while the House saves $56 million. A compromise could be a shorter school year. Unlike Gregoire, both budgets retain the Basic Health Plan, which provides lower-cost health insurance to low-income workers, and portions of the Disability Lifeline, which gives health care to certain disabled people unable to work.
The House and Senate had angled to get savings in another area – through early release of inmates from state prisons. But Senate lawmakers appeared to back away today from releasing prison inmates early to save money, according to this item by our reporting partner Jordan Schrader at The News Tribune.
His report said a proposal to let inmates out 60 days early had been dropped from Senate Bill 5891. That bill retains elements to save $15 million, including moves to not supervise first-offenders after their release from custody or some locally jailed inmates upon their release.
The House and Senate haven't quite gotten to that corrections issue yet in budget talks, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan.
Sullivan declined to share details of the House Democrats' counterproposal, except to say the House moved to the Senate position on a number of issues he described as significant.
Gregoire said earlier this week that the House and Senate negotiators are at the place she faced in December when she decided the state could no longer afford Basic Health and the Disability Lifeline. But Sullivan reiterated his majority caucus’ position in support of BHP and the lifeline.
Despite Gregoire's stance on the liquor warehouse lease, Sullivan said that idea is not off the table yet.