Taxes remain a big obstacle as clock runs out in Olympia

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are bound for overtime, again, after whiffing on nearly every significant issue hurled at them in the regular session ending today.

For most, the list of chores they need-to-do and those they still want-to-do is almost as long now as when they started 105 days ago.

Members of the Democrat-run House and Republican-controlled Senate seem farther apart on budget and policy matters compared to many previous years they’ve run into extra sessions.

They say a divided Legislature, rookie governor, court order to boost school funding and slow economic recovery combined to create a perfect storm of political inaction.

They will end the regular session without adopting a new operating budget for the two-year period which begins July 1, arguably their most important and difficult assignment.

A main stumbling block is taxes: Democrats want to raise at least $1 billion for public schools by closing tax breaks and extending an expiring business tax while Republicans insist the state’s economy will generate enough additional dollars in the next two years to cover the tab.

The two chambers haven’t begun serious conversations on a proposal for hiking the gas tax to help fund billions of dollars in transportation projects. Business, labor, and environmental groups as well as cities, counties and transit districts are all clamoring for this.

And lawmakers are at loggerheads on bills to reform the running of schools and workers compensation; crack down on repeat offenders of drunken driving; allow undocumented immigrants to be eligible for college aid and require health insurance plans to cover abortion if they already pay for maternity services.

And Gov. Jay Inslee still wants to talk about gun control even as leaders of the two chambers are showing little interest in the topic.

In the final days of the regular session, the distance between the House and Senate could be measured by the lack of intensity. Lawmakers did not meet or vote late into the night. Nor were there marathon bargaining sessions on budget bills.

Those are certain to come when Inslee summons them into special session. He may announce a starting date tonight after the Legislature adjourns.

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A special session is not unique in Washington. There’s been at least one of them in 22 of the last 33 years. In 2012, the Legislature held a 30-day extra session then launched right into a second special session wrapping up in the early morning hours.

This year there are unique dynamics which had lawmakers predicting overtime from the get-go.

First, an unusual financial challenge awaited them. They needed to pare spending to fill a $1.2 billion hole in the budget while at the same time put more money into basic education programs in elementary and secondary schools to satisfy a state Supreme Court directive.

Democrats, Republicans and Inslee all said early on they wanted to make a $1 billion down payment toward complying with the court’s ruling in the McCleary case. Agreeing on where the money will come from and into which pots it goes is the gap they’ve not come close to bridging.

Second, the balance of political power had shifted. Weeks before the session began, Democrats lost control of the Senate when conservative members Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, joined 23 Republicans to form the Senate Majority Coalition.

This coalition has been as steadfast in its opposition to ending any tax break as House Democrats and Inslee have been in pushing to eliminate up to a dozen of them.

And it has stymied efforts of Democrats and the rookie governor to force votes on bills dealing with abortion insurance coverage, known as the Reproductive Parity Act, and college aid for immigrant students, referred to as the Dream Act.

With attention trained on the disputes, it’s easy to overlook agreements reached on potentially thorny budget issues.

For example, the House, Senate and governor all embrace the full expansion of Medicaid permitted under the new federal health care law.

All three support ending furloughs for state workers and approving collective bargaining agreements with them and higher education employees. Pay and benefits of public employees have been targeted by lawmakers the past few years.

They all endorse suspending cost-of-living raises for teachers called for under voter-approved Initiative 732 while providing a 50-cent an hour increase in wages for 43,000 home care aides. Though the workers secured the pay hike through arbitration, there was concern it might not be fully funded because it will cost the state $73 million a year. Inslee supports this move, too.

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Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, surveyed the political landscape when he arrived in Olympia in January and concluded they could not reach accords on everything in the regular session.

“If both sides are saying something is important it doesn’t mean it’s important in the same way,” he said. “These are ideological fights that have been going on for 100 years and will be going on for another 100 years. You can’t expect to get peace on these issues quickly.”

Newly elected House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, viewed it differently. Everyone understood adopting a new budget with added funding for public schools was the chief task, he said.

Instead, he said, the House focused too much time and energy on a Democrat proposal to expand the law on background checks of gun purchases.

“It fractured the place. It took everyone’s eyes off the ball,” he said. “This year was supposed to be about education. Even the kids know when their homework is due. Even the kids know when their assignments are due.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the background check bill did not slow things down as budget writers did not get distracted by the debate, he said.

In the Senate, Democratic leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, laid blame for a special session at the feet of the Senate Majority Coalition for preventing action on bills like the Dream Act and Reproductive Parity Act which enjoy bipartisan support.

“You’ve seen the far right of that majority caucus basically holding the moderates hostage while they pass their own very far right bills,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said they’re going into overtime because Democrats and Republicans alike held onto their beliefs strongly.

“It’s just the dynamics of what you’re seeing in our culture today. There is a wide spectrum of ideas out there and trying to find where that middle ground is, is sometimes difficult,” he said.

“One thing I won’t do is point fingers,” he said. “To me, we didn’t finish in 105 days and we’re partially responsible for that.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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