After lots of trash talk, budget talk will get real in Olympia

OLYMPIA — It’s nasty time inside the state Capitol, where Democratic and Republican lawmakers are digging in for fierce negotiations on a new two-year budget.

A handful of House and Senate negotiators from both parties will begin meeting this week behind closed doors to try to reach agreement on how much the state will spend and exactly where those dollars will go.

There are fewer than 20 days to reach a deal and avoid a special session of the Legislature, and a deal doesn’t seem probable given the differences in partisan budgets passed by House Democrats and Senate Republicans and the volleys of criticism exchanged by their authors.

Consider these examples:

When House Democrats rolled out their $38.8 billion proposal, the lead budget writer in the Senate blasted its reliance on money from an unpredictable capital gains tax for public schools.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know if that’s unconstitutional or just unconscionable,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

A few days later, Hill released the Senate Republicans’ $37.8 billion proposal and the author of the House budget said it relied on “overly optimistic” marijuana tax revenues and mystery cuts in spending.

“The Senate’s budget assumes millions in magic agency ‘efficiencies,’ which are essentially budget gimmicks designed to make cuts without being specific about which cuts they’re making,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

But in Olympia, there’s a rhythm to the ritual, and such rhetoric is the first beat.

Hunter and Hill, who are both well-spoken, detail-oriented former employees of Microsoft, will be steering the talks in pursuit of a compromise before the scheduled end of the session on April 26.

The players

There will be about a dozen people deeply involved. The Democratic and Republican caucus in each chamber will designate two negotiators and have their respective leaders engaged, as well.

Gov. Jay Inslee is scheduled to meet this week with negotiators — individually and collectively — for a frank conversation about his interests. This can be critically important because lawmakers want an idea at the outset what decisions the governor might embrace or oppose. No one wants to waste time on a matter that could get vetoed.

Hunter said he hoped to meet with Hill as early as Wednesday so they can get a handle on the calculations — mathematical and political — that went into their respective plans.

“I can’t really negotiate with them until I understand what they’re doing,” Hunter said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, vice chairman of the Senate budget committee, are the other members of the caucus negotiating teams.

At the outset, there are a slew of big boulders to crack, none larger than how much to spend in the two-year budget, or, in the language of Olympia, “the size of the box.”

The differences

The House plan spends $1 billion more than the Senate’s. It’s likely the final figure will be somewhere in between, which would force Democrats to curb their desires and Republicans to agree to spend more in some areas than they would like.

Another huge boulder is taxes. The Democratic plan seeks to raise $1.5 billion, mostly from a capital gains tax and an increase in the business tax paid by lawyers and other professionals. Senate Republicans insist new or higher taxes are not needed.

Pay hikes for state workers is an obstacle. The House fully funds pay raises negotiated under collective bargaining agreements, while the Senate does not, instead offering an alternative that would cost $66 million less.

There’s also a chasm between the chambers on pay hikes for teachers, expansion of early childhood education, freezing or reducing tuition, and whether to suspend Initiative 1351 or allow voters to modify the measure to lower class sizes.

And on marijuana tax revenue, Democrats would put it into health care while Republicans would put it into public school funding. Unraveling that knot will affect other decisions, lawmakers said.

Even as the negotiators banter on large issues, they and their staffers are going line-by-line through the 500-page tomes in search of agreement on less-costly matters.

For example, the Senate would provide $2.4 million for Washington State University to add classes at the University Center on the campus of Everett Community College. The House would allocate $1.8 million.

And House Democrats want $28.6 million for state parks and $4.6 million for LIDAR mapping of landslide-prone areas, while Senate Republicans would spend $5 million for parks and nothing for the additional mapping.

Reaching a deal

After this week’s initial round of meetings, an unpredictable pace will ensue.

There are no rules for the frequency of conversations or how quickly the two sides might begin exchanging written offers, let alone reach a tentative agreement. In areas where disagreement is deep, lawmakers with expertise in those areas might be summoned to help break an impasse.

When a tentative agreement is reached, it is presented to leaders of the four caucuses, then the members. Each caucus will conduct some version of a vote count, because it is presumed that any deal will pass with some level of bipartisan support.

Even when there’s a deal, much work remains as staff members meticulously ensure the documents possessed by the two sides match to the penny and the bills needed to implement the budget match to the comma.

Through it all, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler will never be far from the negotiations. And as the two chambers close in on a deal, they’ll be in contact, directly or through intermediaries.

If talks stall, the governor will speak with leaders of all four caucuses on how to get around the obstacles.

Lawmakers don’t want to reprise the drama of 2013, when they struggled through two special sessions before reaching a deal hours before a partial shutdown of state government.

“We’re well-positioned to get it done on time,” said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, one of the House Republican negotiators. “From my experience, members will take the same vote in July that they would have taken in March. It’s not like making wine. It doesn’t get better with age.”

Getting it right is more important than getting it done by April 26, Hunter said.

Lawmakers are writing a budget and operating documents to guide the state for the next two years, setting a course through the next four years, Hunter said. There is an “existential change” from previous years because it must infuse billions of new dollars into education to comply with a state Supreme Court order for the state to fully fund public schools.

“The whole budget has to be restructured. Getting that right is job one. We’re clearly working hard to get it done in 105 days,” he said. “I think the public should be more focused on what is it that we’re doing than the exact number of days.”

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

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Snohomish residents Barbara Bailey, right, and Beth Jarvis sit on a gate atop a levee on Bailey’s property on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Bailey Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Bailey is concerned the expansion of nearby Harvey Field Airport will lead to levee failures during future flood events due to a reduction of space for floodwater to safely go. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Harvey Field seeks to reroute runway in floodplain, faces new pushback

Snohomish farmers and neighbors worry the project will be disruptive and worsen flooding. Ownership advised people to “read the science.”

Grayson Huff, left, a 4th grader at Pinewood Elementary, peeks around his sign during the Marysville School District budget presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
State OKs Marysville plan with schools, jobs on chopping block

The revised plan would mean the loss of dozens of jobs and two schools — still to be identified — in a school district staring down a budget crunch.

IAM District 751 machinists join the picket line to support Boeing firefighters during their lockout from the company on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amid lockout, Boeing, union firefighters return to bargaining table

The firefighters and the planemaker held limited negotiations this week: They plan to meet again Monday, but a lockout continues.

The Trestle’s junction with I-5 is under evaluation (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Here’s your chance to give feedback on the US 2 trestle and its future

Often feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and on shaky ground? So is the trestle. A new $17 million study seeks solutions for the route east of Everett.

George Beard poses for a photo outside of the the Stanwood Library in Stanwood, Washington on Wednesday, May 8, 2024.  (Annie Barker / The Herald)
From sick to the streets: How an illness left a Stanwood man homeless

Medical bills wiped out George Beard’s savings. Left to heal in his car, he got sicker. Now, he’s desperate for housing. It could take years.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Lawsuit says Snohomish County deputies not justified in Sultan shooting

Two deputies repeatedly shot an unarmed Sultan man last year, body camera video shows. An internal investigation is pending.

An airplane is parked at Gate M9 on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Jordan Hansen/The Herald)
Good luck to Memorial Day travelers: If you’re like me, you’ll need it

I spent a night in the Chicago airport. I wouldn’t recommend it — but with flight delays near an all-time high, you might want to pack a pillow.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Friday, May 24

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Cascade’s Mia Walker, right, cries and hugs teammate Allison Gehrig after beating Gig Harbor on Thursday, May 23, 2024 in Lacey, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Seniors Wilson, Tripp power Cascade softball past Gig Harbor

The pair combined for three homers as the Bruins won the Class 3A state softball opening-round game.

The original Mountlake Terrace City Council, Patricia Neibel bottom right, with city attorney, sign incorporation ordinance in 1954. (Photo provided by the City of Mountlake Terrace)
Patricia Neibel, last inaugural MLT council member, dies at 97

The first woman on the council lived by the motto, “Why not me?” — on the council, at a sheriff’s office in Florida, or at a leper colony in Thailand.

To the amazement of onlookers, flames shoot out the exhaust pipes on Les Sanders’ black 1950 Mercury Coupe as he drives up and down Colby Avenue with many others in classic and custom automobiles during one of the many popular Cruzin’ to Colby events held each summer in Everett. (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Cruzin’ to Colby has ‘100 years of cars’ showing off in downtown Everett

Last year, over 40,000 people came to the free event, a Memorial Day weekend tradition for nearly 25 years.

N3054V accident site. (Alaska State Trooper Photo)
Lake Stevens pilot, who lived ‘Alaska dream,’ died in Fairbanks crash

Former Snohomish County lawyer Harry “Ray” Secoy III, 63, worked as a DC-4 pilot in Alaska in the last years of his life.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.