With clock ticking, state lawmakers still in budget talks

OLYMPIA — House and Senate leaders put the finishing touches Wednesday on a supplemental budget agreement that will reportedly inject more money into public schools but make teachers wait at least another year for a state-funded pay hike.

House and Senate budget writers negotiated all the previous night and much of the day to resolve their differences on what changes to make in state spending through the middle of next year.

While they remained tight-lipped, several lawmakers and lobbyists late Wednesday said that a 1.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and other public-school employees did not make it into the final agreement. Details of the deal were expected to be released Thursday morning.

Negotiators were finishing their work in the nick of time. The 60-day session of the Legislature is to end Thursday night at midnight.

The absence of a budget agreement was the one thing capable of pushing lawmakers into a special session, something members did not want after holding three additional sessions last year.

Now 147 citizen legislators can tackle a final batch of chores, including trying to end disputes between the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-run Senate on several bills.

“It’s fascinating,” said freshman Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett. “We’re down to a finite number of big votes we’re going to take. It’s just amazing to watch the whole process twist and turn and unfold.”

While there is a deal on a spending plan, there isn’t one yet for a capital construction budget.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, who are negotiating on behalf of the two parties in the House, each said on Tuesday they received an email from Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, their counterpart in the Senate, in which he called an end to talks about a budget agreement.

But Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, on Wednesday said conversations were continuing on a slimmed-down version of a budget measure.

“You never say never,” he said.

Meanwhile, there’s been no rapprochement on a bill to revise the statewide teacher evaluation program in hopes of retaining a federal waiver which provides roughly $40 million for assisting academically challenged students.

Federal education officials want the state to require that student scores on statewide tests be used in evaluating the performance of teachers. Existing law allows them to be used, but it is not mandated.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and leaders of the Senate majority are pushing for the change but are encountering resistance from Democrats and conservative Republicans in both chambers.

Another bill up in the air would merge the largely unregulated medical marijuana market with the heavily regulated industry for growing and selling of weed for recreational use.

A major sticking point concerns the distribution of future marijuana tax revenue. Cities and counties are hoping to get a portion, and some lawmakers view it as necessary to do so to encourage those communities to not impose local bans on marijuana businesses.

Also on the radar Thursday is a $40 document-recording fee imposed by county auditors and the Department of Commerce to fund homeless-assistance programs. The fee is supposed to drop to $30 next year and $10 by 2017.

Democratic lawmakers and the governor want to make the $40 fee permanent, but the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus is only willing to extend it one year, to 2016, then begin phasing it out. Late Wednesday, new compromise language was being drafted for consideration.

And as of late Wednesday, lawmakers still had not approved a bill granting a tuition break to active-duty military personnel, veterans and their family members. The House and Senate each passed a version of the bill allowing them to pay the lower, in-state tuition rate, regardless of how long they’ve lived in Washington.

One of the chambers must pass the other chamber’s version, or it will die.

As the to-do list shortened Wednesday, lawmakers wondered if a few extra hours might be needed to get everything done.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, insisted there’s no reason for overtime.

“I don’t think there’s an appetite to go into a special session for the little stuff that’s left to go,” he said.

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

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