By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — Exhausted state lawmakers worked feverishly Tuesday night to pass a new state budget and a spate of government reforms before time expired on their special session.
With a tenuous agreement in hand before dinner, the House and Senate faced a midnight deadline to finish a pile of work or face another overtime.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said lawmakers would work past midnight and through the night if needed.
“I’m hopeful we keep working until we are done,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds. “I think it’s time to get out of here.”
Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, echoed the sentiment but worried about the content of bills getting rewritten that night.
“I am ready to finish,” he said. “But I have to be careful with these votes. The bills are coming fast and furious and things are changing minute by minute.”
Indeed, once Democratic and Republican leaders of the two chambers nodded their agreement on a deal, they spent the rest of the evening ironing out language in legislation that had tied them up in knots for weeks.
Erasing a $500 million shortfall in the state budget stood as the primary task of the special session. Lawmakers in both parties said they had reached consensus on how to plug the gap without cuts in funding to public schools and colleges while setting aside a reserve of about $350 million.
But the budget vote would be one of the final taken. Under the deal reached Tuesday, each chamber had to first approve reforms that included bills to put a requirement for balanced budgets into law, curb early retirement options for future state workers and improve health insurance offerings to public school employees.
While those three reforms don’t save money for the two-year budget running through June 2013, a coalition of Republican and moderate Democratic senators demanded their passage as a condition of voting on the budget. They argued throughout the 60-day regular session and month-long extra session that those measures will help the state save billions of dollars and ensure future budgets are sustainable.
Lawmakers didn’t strike an accord on the pension reform until Tuesday. Senators approved it on a 27-22 vote, and it awaited passage in the House.
Under the bill, workers retiring at the age of 55 would see their early retirement benefits reduced by as much as 50 percent. It applies to employees hired as of May 2013. Republicans contend it could save the state an estimated $1.3 billion over 25 years.
Democrat who opposed it said the money-saving reform is not needed and will deter people from applying for state jobs in the future.
Tuesday also saw lawmakers tie up loose ends on a bill that will mandate that the state’s two-year budget be balanced. The Republican-led Senate coalition originally sought to amend the state constitution to require passage of a balanced budget covering four years at a time. House Democrat strenuously opposed that term, and the end result appears to put in law what lawmakers already do.
Finally, the proposed reforms for health insurance for public school employees headed toward approval after much massaging. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, pushed to consolidate the roughly 300 different plans into a handful of plans in hopes of equalizing benefit packages among part- and full-time employees.
The bill headed to the finish line would require changes in — but not elimination of — existing plans now offered by separate school districts.
Two other items on the plate Tuesday: passage of a $1.1 billion supplemental capital budget with hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending and approval of revenue through proposals to tax roll-your-own cigarette operations and eliminate a tax break for the nation’s largest banks.
While lawmakers spoke confidently of avoiding the need to spend any more time in Olympia, there were plenty of hiccups Tuesday night that halted action in the Senate and House and raised concerns of a possible breakdown.
Lawmakers had become used to such drama.
They became deadlocked in the final week of the regular session when a coalition of 22 Republicans and three Democrats seized control of the Senate to pass a GOP-crafted budget and reforms.
House Democrats, who passed a far different spending plan, resisted negotiating with the alliance on its budget and package of reforms.
Relations thawed midway through the special session when Democratic leaders acknowledged they could not go home without passage of some reforms.
On Monday, Gregoire and lawmakers negotiated 11 hours on an all-encompassing proposal covering reforms, new revenue plus revised operating and capital budgets.
“They were my offers. After having listened to all of them, (what was offered were) what I thought was good public policy, what I thought did not have unintended consequences, what I thought was workable, what I thought was politically doable within their respective caucuses based on what I’d heard,” Gregoire said.
With no deal Tuesday morning, the tension persisted as they labored toward the session’s end. Liias said that what happened in the Senate in the regular session changed things — gridlock comes from divided government.
“That’s not a criticism. It’s a reality,” he said. “Divided government takes longer.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.