Amendments stall state Senate budget plan; House passes its version

OLYMPIA — The state Senate worked into the early morning hours Friday debating dozens of amendments to a Republican-crafted budget bill, but a final vote on the plan won’t happen until after the weekend, at the earliest.

After more than nine hours of debate, Senate Republicans were blocked from moving forward immediately because minority Democrats wouldn’t allow them to bypass a procedural rule that requires additional time before a bill can be voted on.

Republicans had urged quick passage of the budget ahead of the holiday weekend so that they could start negotiations with the House, which passed its budget the day before.

“This is the biggest bill of the year,” said Sen. Andy Hill, the key budget writer for Senate Republicans. “I certainly hope people aren’t trying to obstruct what we’re trying to do.”

But Democrats argued that more time was needed to study the budget.

“Yes, we have had a long debate,” said Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson. “But it has been a one-sided conversation.”

More than 70 amendments were offered, most of them by Democrats, and debate lasted for several hours following a contentious rule change to require a higher vote threshold for amendments to the operating budget — 30 votes, instead of the current 25.

That rule had previously existed for years in the chamber, but lawmakers changed it back to a simple majority in 2011. Democrats accused majority Republicans on Thursday of trying to give cover to some of their colleagues to potentially allow them to take votes ranging on amendments from climate change to discrimination to increasing the minimum wage that will still fall short of the threshold.

One such amendment that would have passed under the previous rule was an amendment to restore collective bargaining agreements with state workers in the budget. The budget plan rejects them, and instead provides two $1,000-per-year wage increases for all state agency employees. The amendment, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jim Hargrove, got 29 votes — including support from six Republicans — but fell one vote short of passage early Friday morning.

In total, just five amendments were accepted, and of those, just one was sponsored by a Democrat. One of the Republican amendments accepted Friday changed where marijuana taxes would be diverted. Under the original plan, $296 million of the budget would come from permanently shifting the distribution of the marijuana taxes — which currently go to health programs, among others — to education. Under the amendment that passed, that money instead is placed in the reserve fund.

The drama in the Senate came after a relatively low-key debate in the House on their budget plan.

The House passed its $39 billion two-year budget Thursday on a 51-47 party-line vote. The House hasn’t yet voted on other bills that will pay for the plan, including one that creates a capital gains tax.

Lawmakers will return at 1 p.m. Monday.

The Legislature is in the midst of a 105-day legislative session that is scheduled to end April 26. Lawmakers need to write a new two-year operating budget for the state under the shadow of a court-ordered requirement to put additional money toward the state’s education system.

There are differing ideas between the politically divided chambers on how best to do that, with Democrats seeking more revenue and Republicans offering a no-new-taxes plan that redirects existing funds.

The House budget bill allocates $1.4 billion in new spending toward the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, including spending to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, purchase textbooks and supplies, and fund all-day kindergarten. The budget bill passed Thursday also includes a two-year freeze on tuition at the state’s universities.

The Senate plan looks to allocate $1.3 billion toward the so-called McCleary education mandate and also looks to cut tuition at the state’s public universities and community colleges by linking tuition rates at state schools to a percentage of the average wage for Washington workers.

The Senate has offered up a $38 billion spending plan. That proposal looks to use existing revenue and transfer about $375 million from more than a dozen different accounts to the state’s general fund. The plan also seeks to amend a voter-approved initiative to reduce class sizes and ask voters whether they agree with the change through a referendum. Voters in November approved reducing class sizes for all grades, but the Senate plan — as in the House plan — only pays for reductions for kindergarten through third grade. That change would go to voters for their approval or rejection under the Senate plan.

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