Governor calls 2nd special session as lawmakers squabble

OLYMPIA — A lot was going on, but not much was happening Thursday as state lawmakers concluded a monthlong special session.

They passed a few bills and exchanged a few barbs, but House Democrats and Senate Republicans didn’t get a deal done on a new state budget.

That’s forcing them into a second 30-day special session starting Friday. Just in case they can’t reach agreement by July 1, when the fiscal year starts, preparations continue for a partial government shutdown.

But there are signs the two sides are getting closer.

Senate Republicans unveiled a new two-year budget proposal Thursday that spends more money and moves them closer to the position of Democrats on several fronts, including pay raises for state workers, funding for state parks and even lidar mapping of landslide-prone areas.

House Democrats, meanwhile, will counter on Monday with an offer of their own in the form of a new spending plan. They say it will further close the gap between the two parties.

Citing the movement, Gov. Jay Inslee said he’ll have negotiators in his office for prolonged face-to-face talks every day starting on Monday.

“We’re all going to have to compromise,” Inslee said. “I am urging lawmakers not to act as if they have a 30-day reprieve. They do not. Their work should be done much faster than that.”

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, the lead budget negotiator for Senate Republicans, said his caucus has been “looking for leadership from the governor. If he can provide that, great.”

State lawmakers are in this jam because the majority party in each of the two chambers cannot agree on how much money to spend or where the dollars will come from.

In April, House Democrats passed a plan to spend $38.8 billion, while Senate Republicans approved a $37.8 billion budget. Since then, House Democrats have said they’re willing to come down, and Senate Republicans are poised to go up.

The sticking point remains Democrats’ insistence that additional tax revenue is needed to ensure a sustainable budget. Republicans say the economy will generate the money needed, via existing taxes and fees.

On Thursday, leaders of the dueling caucuses met with reporters to posture and position themselves entering the next extra session.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said that Senate Republicans’ refusal to begin serious negotiations sooner prevented an agreement from getting reached.

“It was very disappointing,” the Democratic leader said. “I think we could have had our work done. We’re approaching July 1. We have to have a sense of urgency to get our work done as soon as possible.”

For their part, Hill said Republicans provided an offer on May 22 and didn’t hear back for five days.

“We are frustrated with the way negotiations are going right now,” Hill said.

He said the issue of taxes should be off the table because the May revenue forecast indicates lawmakers have roughly $400 million more to spend than when each chamber adopted its budget in April.

The new proposal Hill unfurled Thursday calls for $37.9 billion in spending in the next biennium.

The Senate budget passed in April would have boosted every employee’s salary by $1,000 a year. One of the big changes in the new proposal is that it would instead give 4.8 percent raises to union-represented state workers, as the latest House proposal does. The 4.8 percent raises would cost $66 million more than the $1,000 raises.

However, the Republican proposal grants the percentage raises on the condition that the collective bargaining process is reformed. Democrats oppose that.

Senate Republicans also now would put $11 million more into parks, provide $4.6 million for lidar mapping and spend another $99 million to reduce college tuition. Their latest proposal also lessens reliance on transfers of money between accounts to balance the budget, maneuvers that Democrats decry as gimmicks.

As negotiations continue, planning for a potential shutdown is well under way. Agencies have drawn up contingency plans that the Office of Financial Management will post online Friday.

Many will be updates of plans crafted by agencies in 2013, when lawmakers followed a similar path and didn’t enact a budget until the last week of June.

Also Friday, unions representing most state workers will be notified that there might be layoffs if no budget is in place.

Employees of Washington State Ferries and the Washington State Patrol shouldn’t worry, however. One of lawmakers’ few accomplishments during the special session came Thursday with final passage in the Senate of a two-year, $7.6 billion transportation budget. The House had approved it Wednesday.

That budget uses money from the existing gas tax and assorted vehicle fees to pay for road projects under way and the operations of the State Patrol, ferries and the departments of Licensing and Transportation.

The transportation budget includes $500,000 for the city of Edmonds to find solutions to the problem of traffic back-ups on the waterfront because of frequent trains.

It also provides Island Transit with money to resume service from Camano Island to Stanwood and downtown Everett, contingent on the transit agency making riders pay a fare, which it does not currently do.

And it lays the groundwork for a 2.5 percent increase in ferry fares this fall and again next fall. The Washington State Transportation Commission will hold hearings to decide the amount and timing.

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

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