5 things to watch heading into special session
Budget writers in the House and Senate will continue their negotiations in the coming days in hopes in hopes of being closer to a deal by the time the rest of the Legislature returns on May 13. Gov. Jay Inslee has insisted that while the budget will be the "central responsibility" of lawmakers during the special session, he also made clear he wants them to take up policy bills that stalled during the regular session, including ones dealing with abortion insurance coverage, gun violence and allowing young immigrants living in the country without legal permission to be eligible for college financial aid.
Here's a look at the things to watch for during the upcoming special session, as well as some history on those not-so-unusual overtime sessions:
Lawmakers need to address a projected budget deficit of more than $1.2 billion for the next two-year budget ending in mid-2015, not counting additional money needed for a court-ordered requirement that they increase funding to basic education. The House and Senate have taken different approaches to balance state spending and increase funding for education, with the biggest difference centered around whether to raise revenue from extending taxes or eliminating tax breaks. The Senate is controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, and they passed a budget during the regular session that balances spending without new taxes, relying on cuts to social programs and fund transfers. The House's budget would increase tax revenue by roughly $1 billion over the next two years, including a permanent extension of business taxes to raise more than half a billion dollars. The plan would also repeal tax breaks for travel agents, bottled water and fuel. Both sides have been meeting for the past week to try and work toward agreement.
The Washington Supreme Court decided in January 2012 that the Legislature was not meeting its constitutional duty to fully pay for basic education with state dollars. The court gave lawmakers until 2018 to pay for the school reform ideas they had already approved, to fund the Legislature's definition of basic education, find a sustainable source of money for schools, and to take back the financial burden from school districts, which use local levies to fill the gaps. In response to the ruling, many lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee are looking to add at least $1 billion to education this year. The Senate and House budgets add money to the K-12 budget to answer the ruling, but their approaches differ. While both add money to full-day kindergarten, classroom supplies and transportation, the House also puts more money into upper grade instructional hours and class size reduction.
Inslee cited several policy bills he'd like to see addressed during the special session, including a measure to strengthen the state's impaired driving laws in the wake of recent fatal accidents, an issue that has bipartisan support and which Inslee said they are close to a deal on; a transportation tax package to pay for road maintenance and projects, including a replacement for the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River; a plan aimed to make Washington the first state to require insurers that cover maternity care to also pay for abortions; and the financial aid bill known as the "dream act" for young immigrants in the country illegally. Gun control advocates have launched an initiative campaign after an effort to expand background checks on gun sales stalled, but Inslee indicated that the Legislature could still take action on the issue, saying "if common sense is allowed votes, we can move forward." Inslee noted that there are policy bills that Republicans are likely interested to discuss during special session as well. Republican policy bills that stalled in the Legislature include measures dealing with the state's worker compensation system, payday lending, and some education-related bills, like one that would grade schools.
Over the next few weeks, Inslee will continue signing some of the more than 300 bills passed by the Legislature during the regular session. Also, Inslee says that budget negotiators will be meeting regularly. "We will be engaged in some vigorous work in hopes that the Legislature can produce a budget and finish their remaining work in a quick and orderly fashion," he said Sunday night.
Special session history
Not counting the upcoming overtime session, there have been 40 special sessions since 1981, including second and third special sessions held within the same year, said Patrick McDonald, assistant to Secretary of State Kim Wyman. Since Washington state switched from a biannual session to a yearly session in 1981, the state has held 105-day sessions in odd years, and 60-day sessions on even years. Before that switch, special sessions started becoming the norm in the 1950s, according to a list put together by the state. The first special session was held in 1890 and lasted nine days. Last year, lawmakers used the full 30 days of one special session, then headed into a several-hour second special session before adjourning.
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