As expected, Legislature’s work isn’t done

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers arrived in January knowing they needed to balance the budget and they were going home Thursday without having done the job.

That means they’ll be back soon for a special session.

When the overtime will start wasn’t known Thursday. And when it begins, it isn’t clear what it will take for Democratic and Republican leaders to end their impasse and construct a budget agreement.

Most lawmakers think a few days away from Olympia might help everyone get readjusted.

“I think we need a cooling-off period,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds. “We need to go home, see our families, spend time in our communities and get a sense of the priorities they want us to focus on.”

While the budget stalemate earned lawmakers an incomplete, they did rack up a few significant accomplishments in the 60-day session.

They made it legal for gay and lesbian couples to marry, increased several fees to avert cuts in state ferry service and created a new system for evaluating public school teachers and principals.

Still, striking a budget accord eluded them.

On Thursday, with the clock running out and the prospect of special session all but certain, Democrats provided drama and intrigue with a last gasp heave at passing a budget.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate had reached agreement among themselves on a plan to plug an estimated $500 million hole and set aside $351 million in reserve. The House passed it in the afternoon, then sent it to the Senate where it appeared several moderate Democrats intended to join Republicans to repel the 11th-hour offering if it came up for a vote.

It was a purely political endeavor by Democrats stung by minority Republicans seizing control in the Senate a week ago, then approving a budget they wrote rather than one drawn up by the chamber’s majority Democrats.

In the aftermath, it was House Democratic leaders who refused to entertain direct negotiations with their GOP counterparts in the Senate.

“To the extent we get to a budget agreement it’s going to be something like what we want to do and something like what they want to do,” said Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the architect of the Senate budget. “To get into a partisan shell and say we’re not going to have a conversation, the public will have to decide the value of that choice in the process.”

The deadlock means lawmakers face their second special session since Thanksgiving to deal with a lack of money in the state’s two-year spending plan that runs through June 30, 2013.

Last winter, when the projected deficit hovered around $2 billion, they met for nearly a month. In mid-December they pared nearly $500 million in expenses, went home for the holidays and returned for the 2012 session in January.

Then, in February, the combination of declining demand for state services and an uptick in tax collections shrunk the shortfall further, leaving lawmakers with a $1.1 billion problem to solve.

Early Thursday, Gregoire met with leaders of the four caucuses and pressed them to craft a “conceptual agreement” on overcoming what’s become the major stumbling block to a budget agreement — Democrats’ desire to delay an apportionment payment to public schools by one day versus Republicans preference to skip a payment into the state pension system.

In that 45-minute discussion, she sensed the frost in their relationships.

“I’m not going to pretend it’s a lovefest,” she said. Tensions are high, she said, as they had reached the final hours of the final day and didn’t have a budget.

Until Republicans’ dramatic budget move, the debate on same-sex marriage stirred the most emotion and garnered the most attention.

With passage of the law, Washington became the seventh state to allow gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. Also several thousand same-sex couples now registered as domestic partners will have their relationships converted into marriages unless the couple marries or dissolves their partnership before then.

Hours after Gregoire signed the law, opponents launched their effort to repeal it this November.

“It’s historic, it’s incredible,” state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor said at the time. “No matter what happens with the referendum, nothing can take this feeling away.”

Another major accomplishment in the session came Thursday when Gregoire signed a new law creating a tougher means of evaluating public school teachers and principals. She said it amounted to a “real reform” that will help teachers improve their skills and weed out those not cut out for the profession.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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