Rob McKenna leaps into fray over state budget

OLYMPIA — As a budget deal continued to elude lawmakers Monday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna jumped into the fray with his ideas on how to reach agreement in the special session and who is to blame for the continuing impasse.

As expected, McKenna, the state’s two-term attorney general, endorsed the major tenets of a Republican-crafted budget passed by the Senate which assumes reforms of the state pension system, merging of health insurance plans for public school employees and a new balanced budget requirement.

But he contended the coalition of Republican and Democratic senators pushing those reforms is getting nowhere in talks with the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives. McKenna said those senators have compromised and should not cede any further ground to House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

“They haven’t seen one inch of compromise from the speaker’s office. They shouldn’t back down on things that clearly make sense,” McKenna said, adding the public “has to know these reforms are being blocked for political reasons.”

Chopp made clear his displeasure with the accusations in a strongly worded statement.

“Rob McKenna doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Chopp said. “His statements about the budget process in Olympia aren’t based in fact, and it’s disappointing that his comments are motivated by his political campaign.”

Former Congressman Jay Inslee, who is the likely Democratic candidate to face McKenna this November, has yet to detail budget reforms he’ll propose.

That didn’t prevent his campaign spokeswoman, Jaime Smith, from criticizing McKenna on Monday for offering a “laundry list of not-so-new budget ideas that do nothing to restore funding for education or give legislators a path home. This kind of political hay-making is nothing more than a distraction and proves once again that McKenna has no new ideas to offer voters.”

Monday’s verbal volleys marked the highlight of the 22nd day of a special session called to erase a $500 million deficit and set aside a reserve. And the exchange came with House and Senate lawmakers searching for an agreement before the overtime ends at midnight April 10.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said there’s time to get everything done, but she didn’t sound hopeful.

“I can’t be dishonest about this, we’re struggling,” she said. “We did not have a good weekend. They’ve got to get going or they can’t get anything done.”

On Wednesday, House and Senate members are due back in Olympia. Also, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold hearings on several bills considered linked to any possible budget deal.

Gregoire didn’t think comments by McKenna helped much.

“That is not in any way, shape or form a fair characterization of what has gone on in this room,” said Gregoire, who’s met or spoken with budget writers and party leaders, almost daily in the special session. “I do not know where (McKenna) gets that information.”

McKenna didn’t back down at his campaign event when asked if his allegations might push negotiations farther off track.

“I think that’s highly unlikely,” he said. “I think the speaker has derailed them all by himself.”

A protracted standoff between House Democrats and the Senate coalition prevented agreement in the regular session and has lingered through the special session.

Initially, they split over the Democrats’ desire to postpone a $330 million payment to public schools in June 2013 and the Republicans’ push to skip a $148 million payment into a state pension plan. Both ideas were proposed to free up dollars for education, health care and human service programs.

Their financial differences appeared to dissipate when Gregoire put forth a way to add $238 million to the state’s balance sheet and avoid skipping either payment.

In recent days, the dispute has centered on a handful of reforms, including axing generous early retirement payouts to future state employees and merging health insurance plans for teachers.

McKenna said he’d endorse both as governor. On Monday, he also proposed other reforms, such as paying state workers based on performance rather than seniority and shaving the number of workers on the state payroll by not filling vacant slots as they become open.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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