Lawmakers should lift the cone of silence over budget

If silence is golden, a lot of wealth is stockpiled in the state Capitol, where lawmakers and the governor are mum on progress in reaching a deal on a new state budget.

Thursday will be the 51st day that the Legislature is in special session — that’s one-and-two-thirds extra sessions — and only 12 days remain to reach agreement to avert the first-ever state government shutdown.

This is all reminiscent of 2013, when a clash between House Democrats and Senate Republicans pushed the Legislature through one-and-a-half special sessions — and state government to the same brink. It took lawmakers until June 27 to get a deal. They approved the budget the next day, and Inslee signed it June 30.

A similar scenario is shaping up this year. Democrats still rule the House and Republicans the Senate, and they are once again unable to bridge their financial and philosophical differences.

They are wrangling over how much money to spend in the next budget ­— the Rs say $37.9 billion, and the Ds counter with $38.4 billion — as well as where the money will come from. House Democrats insist additional revenue is needed to pay all the bills, and Senate Republicans disagree.

If any of the negotiators talked publicly, they’d express frustration, not panic. While it’s long past time for a deal, it’s not too late to get it done, they’d say.

They are assembling the hundreds of small pieces of an agreement as they go. Once they settle the big disputes, such as how large a pay hike to give teachers and how deep to cut college tuition, budget writers and their staff will pull an all-nighter to compile everything into legislation, get it proofread and voted on. Any accord would likely ban amendments by individual lawmakers, as was the case in 2013.

Before the cone of golden silence came down on the proceedings, House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, offered his survey of the landscape.

Noting that the Legislature is made up of 147 free agents, he said the challenge each budget cycle is figuring out how to help every member feel they got something out of the process.

Two years ago, it wasn’t easy. The budget was more constrained and the politics more inflamed, with the rise of the Republican-controlled Majority Coalition Caucus. The delay was predictable.

Kristiansen didn’t expect it would wind up as contentious this year and had predicted adjournment on time in April.

But even though the economy is rebounding and Democrats and Republicans share similar priorities for where to spend the money, they still can’t agree on how much spending is enough.

Kristiansen said that when he’s met with majority leaders in each chamber, he asks them to “set aside the (lawmaker) names, set aside the party labels and talk about the wins we’re going to get this year.”

There will be a historic increase in funding for public schools, as well as a sizable boost in money for mental health services and early learning. State workers and teachers will get their first state-funded pay hike in years. An unprecedented reduction in college tuition is likely, he said.

“I look at them and say there’s a whole bunch of winners here, and you’re still fighting for more,” Kristiansen said. “Let’s just call ‘uncle,’ both of you.”

That would require them to lift the cone of silence. Given the weight of gold, it might take a few more days to muster the muscle.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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