After 2 weeks, legislators still not negotiating a budget

OLYMPIA — You can call them budget talks or you can call them budget briefings.

Just don’t call them negotiations. That’s not what the House and Senate are doing in the 30-day special session that crossed the halfway point this week.

Democratic and Republican envoys from the caucuses in both chambers met for several hours Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss — not negotiate — roughly 830 differences in the two-year spending plans passed by the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-run Senate.

“We’re having conversations. We’re trying to understand each other’s budget,” Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chief architect of the Senate budget, said earlier this week. “As we go through and look at the differences, you can very clearly see what each side is doing.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, calls them briefings because, he said, “We’re not making decisions.”

Those involved agree on one thing. They are asking the state’s chief economist for a revenue forecast. It’s expected Monday, a month earlier than usual.

“We think the forecast is going to be positive and it will give us more money to bridge the gap,” Hill said.

Sullivan said Democrats “don’t expect any miracles” and are focused on getting face-to-face negotiations under way.

Given the impasse, there is mounting skepticism lawmakers can reach a deal by May 28, when this extra session will end. That would force a second special session and incite fear of a partial government shutdown July 1, the start of a new fiscal year when a budget is supposed to be in place. A similar drama played out in 2013 when an agreement came together hours before the deadline.

Around the Capitol, no one wants to throw in the towel yet, even as partisan posturing continues unabated. Experienced lawmakers know that if an agreement is reached by late next week, the process of finishing could move swiftly.

On Thursday, Sullivan and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, insisted that getting done in less than two weeks is possible once real talks get started.

“We haven’t had one negotiating session. Not one,” Sullivan said. “At this point they are dragging us into a second special session.”

The reasons for the stand-off are pretty much the same as when the Legislature ended the regular 105-day session on April 24.

House Democrats have passed a $38.8 billion budget for the two-year cycle beginning July 1, while Senate Republicans approved a $37.8 billion spending plan.

The Democrats’ plan is predicated on roughly $1.5 billion from a new capital gains tax and an increase in the business-and-occupation tax paid by professional service firms.

But House Democrats have yet to pass either tax, and Senate Republicans aren’t convinced they can.

GOP leaders continue to insist that the Democrats make those changes before they’ll negotiate. In their view, the House budget spends money that doesn’t exist — at least not until tax measures are passed. By taking such votes, majority Democrats would prove the state can pay for everything in their budget.

“You say you have the votes. Do you?” said House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish. “If you are going to stand strong on your desire to spend that much more, then you should be prepared to show you can support that level of spending.”

Republicans say no new or higher taxes are needed to fund state government. But the Senate, to balance its budget, relies on shifting millions of dollars into the general fund from other state accounts. Democrats oppose some of the transfers and consider others to be gimmicks that need to be discarded and replaced with real dollars from new revenue.

“They don’t want to vote for taxes, and we don’t think there is a reliable way to do the budget without a reliable stream of revenue,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

When you put the two parties’ budgets side by side, you will find 1,049 line-item funding decisions, of which 830 are in conflict, according to a chart compiled by nonpartisan staff of the House Office of Program Research.

Some of those differences involve large sums of money and important questions of policy.

Both the House and Senate provide teachers with a 3 percent wage increase over the course of the two-year budget. But the Democratic House plan offers an additional 1.8 percent and puts more money into health benefits for education employees. Those add up to $360.5 million.

For state workers, the House wants to fully fund pay increases contained in collective bargaining agreements negotiated with the governor. Senate Republicans want to set aside the contracts and instead offer every employee a $1,000-a-year increase, which they say will be a bigger boon for lower-paid workers. It also works out to more than a $100 million difference.

Most of the line-item disagreements involve small sums.

The Senate spends $4,000 less on goods and services for the Public Disclosure Commission but provides $220,000 more for upgrading the agency’s information technology equipment.

These are what budget negotiators from all four caucuses are discussing. Eventually they’ll be making decisions on each one.

“That’s not unlike any other year,” Hill said. “Those are the pebbles. The bigger problems are the boulders.”

They haven’t started negotiating on how to move those, yet.

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

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