Democratic plan may avoid special session

OLYMPIA — Democratic lawmakers today may make a last-ditch effort to pass a budget by midnight when time runs out on the 2012 regular session.

A strategy began unfolding Wednesday evening after House and Senate Democrats reportedly reached agreement on a plan for plugging a $500 million hole in the budget and leaving an ample reserve.

Lawmakers, who asked not to be identified, said they understood the proposal will be voted on by the House first then sent to the Senate where Democratic leaders will try to muster the 25 votes needed for passage.

“It’s the end of the game,” a veteran House Democrat said. “It’s time to throw one to the end zone.”

If successful, a special session is averted. If not, lawmakers may be facing a protracted overtime.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, declined to confirm the reports, saying only his caucus will make a serious bid to get done on time.

“We may not get there, but we sure aren’t quitting,” he wrote in an email. “I can’t share any details of any budget negotiations or agreements now. It’s just premature at this point. But as soon as we are able to, we will make a proposal available to the public.

“Things are just so fluid right now that anything I tell you could very well be out-of-date before it even gets reported,” he wrote.

Talk of this new maneuver ignited hours after Gov. Chris Gregoire said she saw no way to avoid a special session to deal with the budget given the deadlock the lawmakers found themselves in.

She met with heads of the Democratic and Republican caucuses Wednesday and pushed them to get “a budget deal” by midnight Thursday. Accomplish that and they would only need a couple of days of extra time to complete their tasks, she said.

Gregoire was unwilling Wednesday to formally announce a special session.

“The minute I say special session they’ll go to sleep,” she said of lawmakers. “They’ll stop working, and the public expects more. The public expects them to work every last minute to get the job done and I am prepared to do exactly that. I am not going to take the pressure off.”

The stalemate in the Legislature is the same as it’s been since last week’s political uprising in the Senate when minority Republicans scraped together enough votes to pass their budget rather than the one written by majority Democrats.

While Democrats hold a 27-22 edge in the Senate, early Saturday three of their members joined the Republicans to approve the GOP spending plan on a 25-24 vote.

Since then, there have been two proposed budgets in play and each relies on the state skipping or delaying an important payment in order to balance the budget that runs through June 30, 2013.

House Democrats approved a spending plan which postpones a $330 million apportionment payment to public schools by one day, to July 1, 2013. By doing so, $330 million in expenses are erased from this budget and put into the next. Senate Democrats drafted a budget with the same provision.

Republicans strongly oppose the postponement, calling it an accounting gimmick which puts the state in the red to start the next two-year budget cycle.

In their plan, Republicans don’t make a payment into the state’s oldest pension plan to save $133 million. Democrats ardently oppose that move, saying it will cost the state more money in the future to make it up.

Both sides are dug in deep on their positions.

Gregoire said she asked caucus leaders to try to split the difference in the amount of money they’re trying to save and then find an alternative way to come up it.

“I think everybody agrees on what the problem is, and we have to find something to address that problem,” Gregoire said. “I’ve asked each of them to go to work to find a solution.”

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the lead budget writer for Democrats, said they’ve sent ideas to their GOP counterparts and not received any feedback or counter offers.

“It comes down to compromise,” Murray said. “At this point we get out of town when people are willing to compromise.”

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the author of the Senate budget, said until Democrats drop the delayed apportionment payment there isn’t much to talk about.

They said they want to ensure whatever revised budget emerges does not create a deficit in the next two-year spending plan.

Hewitt said Murray is “totally wrong” to say Republicans are unwilling to compromise.

Meanwhile, the agreement expected to be pushed today by Democrats includes the apportionment payment, according to lawmakers familiar with the details. Its presence may be the key for whether Senate Democrats can snag the one vote needed for passage and avoid a special session.

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

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