Another special session may be needed to pass budget

OLYMPIA — Will lawmakers need another special session to settle their differences?

It sure looked that way Wednesday as Democratic and Republican lawmakers appeared to hit a wall in negotiating an agreement on erasing a budget deficit and making money-saving reforms.

Wednesday morning, House Democratic leaders rolled out a new budget proposal and a passel of reform bills they said they hoped would become a vehicle for striking a deal to get everything finished by Tuesday when the special session is scheduled end.

“This is not intended to break the impasse,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House and Ways Means Committee. “This is the current offer.”

But Republican and conservative Democratic senators with whom House Democrats are negotiating, said the reforms don’t go far enough and the budget plan pushes the two sides farther apart making another extra session highly likely.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s important we show up, we try, we work hard, we be flexible and pliable, but we just don’t roll over and call it in,” said Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the chief Republican negotiator. “It’s going to take whatever time it takes.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire met with Zarelli and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, for an hour Wednesday afternoon. They didn’t emerge with any accord.

“No one is throwing in the towel just yet,” said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for Gregoire. “The governor will continue to ensure conversations continue, but whether the special session wraps up on time is ultimately up to the Legislature.”

Technically, there are enough hours left for the House and Senate to do everything needed to pass revised budgets for the state’s day-to-day operations and new construction plus any bills required for implementing them.

But with Passover and Easter coming up, Snohomish County lawmakers realize the prospects of overtime are increasing.

“I’m hopeful we can get out of here by Tuesday, but based on what’s happening today, it doesn’t look like it,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

There’s been compromise but not enough, and there’s no real sense of urgency here, said Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

“We’re kind of stuck in the middle of the lake,” she said. “I feel like each party is paddling in a different direction and can’t seem to get us all going forward.”

For Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, a few more days is OK because of the high stakes.

“I feel if it does take a little extra time, it’s better than rushing into a compromise budget that will greatly affect constituents and schools and future generations,” she said.

If it happens, it would be the third special session to deal with a festering shortfall in the two-year budget that began July 1 and runs through June 30, 2013.

Lawmakers gathered in late November to confront a $2 billion vat of red ink. With cuts and transfers they blotted out about a quarter of the problem.

By mid-February, better-than-expected revenues and a higher-than-anticipated drop in demand for state services left lawmakers trying to fill a $500 million hole plus set aside an ample reserve.

Since then, lawmakers have been stuck. House Democrats, who hold a 56-42 majority, pushed through a budget plan while in the Senate, an alliance of 22 Republicans and three Democrats passed their own version. Senators also insisted on several major reforms not embraced by Democratic representatives.

The two sides weren’t talking when the regular session ended March 8. And they weren’t talking when the special session began March 12. They have in recent days though the philosophical gap may be too large to bridge in the final days.

In the House budget released Wednesday, Democrats no longer propose to postpone a $330 million payment to public schools. Instead, they are using an accounting move to use sales tax collected for local governments to pad reserves by around $238 million.

Among the reform bills discussed Wednesday are ones to eliminate most early retirement options for employees hired after July 1, take steps toward consolidating health insurance plans for public school employees, repeal Initiative 728 requirements to fund smaller class sizes as money is available and require a balanced budget.

In almost every case, the Senate coalition and House Republicans seek grander reforms than the ones proposed.

“We’ve come significantly toward their position,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, on Wednesday.

Republicans couldn’t disagree more. They said Democratic leaders continue to resist approving measures to balance the current budget and ensure future budgets aren’t burdened by unsustainable programs.

“Realistically, it looks really difficult right now,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton.

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

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