Politics & Government

Judgment Day: No apocalypse, no state budget either

Doomsday never came today. So Washington lawmakers kept working at the Capitol in Olympia to finish a two-year state operating budget agreement in Olympia.

"We are on track to get our budget. I think we'll have broad agreement on a lot of it – almost all of it tonight," House Ways and Means chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said early this evening. "We'll probably be fixing some cats and dogs tomorrow."

Hunter didn't elaborate on what fixing cats and dogs meant, but it didn't sound good for the state's sacred cows either.

House and Senate Democrats and Republican negotiators planned to work well into Saturday evening – on a $32 billion two-year operating budget expected to carve into just about every state government program. Some lawmakers also were working on a major overhaul of the state worker compensation program for injured workers.

The House and Senate also were expected back in session Sunday, the House at 10 a.m. and the Senate at 2 p.m.

Progress was reported on both the budget and worker-comp Saturday. Budget writers worked late Friday evening on the budget and a series of talks on workers comp were held on Friday, Saturday morning and late Saturday afternoon (see our print report coming in Sunday’s Olympian and News Tribune papers).

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said late Friday that Senate-House differences on K-12 school funding, higher education and health care were closing. Cuts to pay for public school employees, including teachers, and cuts to school district allotments have been on the block along with deep cuts to college funding and health programs for the poor and disabled.

Talks continued on worker compensation reforms, too. The Washington State Labor Council put out a statement today that ripped Gov. Chris Gregoire’s latest compromise package, which proposes to save about $1.25 billion over four years to reduce the worker-comp pension system’s future liabilities.

A key piece of the package is a "structured settlement" that would let permanently injured workers receive portions of their lifetime pensions up front in a series of lump sums. It is a major change in the system.

House Speaker Frank Chopp and labor groups say lump sum payments could take advantage of workers in desperate situations who would take smaller payouts in the short term and end up destitute years later. The Labor Council's statement this morning said in part:

"The bottom line is, workers who are injured on the job should not have to ‘settle’ for something less than the ‘sure and certain relief’ they are guaranteed by law," said Jeff Johnson, President of the Washington State Labor Council. "The instability in the workers’ comp system has been caused primarily by the recession – a recession that has disproportionately harmed working-class people. And now, just as the economy is showing signs of rebounding, the recession is once again being used by powerful business interests as an opportunity to change the entire nature of our workers’ compensation system."

Without some reductions in costs, some businesses face double-digit increases in the premiums they pay into the system, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries, which reports to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Lawmakers face a deadline of Wednesday, the last day of the 30-day special session, to finish the budget, or it will be Doomsday of a different sort. They'll have to face an even-more-irritated Gregoire, who says she won't call them back to work again until they have a deal ready for a vote.

On the other hand, she's said she won't let them leave town without a deal on workers comp.

Go figure.