The Legislative Building in Olympia at dusk on Thursday.

The Legislative Building in Olympia at dusk on Thursday.

Without a budget deal, legislators begin an overtime session

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Thursday, March 10, 2016 10:38pm
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — When state lawmakers arrived in January, they had a short list of things to do and plenty of confidence in getting them done on time.

Turns out they could not.

Legislators concluded the 60-day regular session Thursday night without a budget deal and promptly began a special session, at the governor’s direction, in search of one.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed 27 bills Thursday night in response to the failure of the House and Senate to agree on a supplemental spending plan before adjourning. He said he had very few problems with the bills but wanted to make a statement about the Legislature’s failure to complete its work on time.

The governor had said he intended to act on 37 bills on his desk, which deal with such concerns as human trafficking, vehicular homicide sentences and wholesale auto dealer licenses. He signed 10 of them. “We had a high bar for signature,” Inslee said at a news conference late Thursday. The bills he signed included ones dealing with public safety and other essential services, he said.

Inslee had promised earlier in the week to veto bills in the hope of catalyzing budget talks. But it didn’t have that effect — there were no substantive negotiations Wednesday or Thursday.

“Sixty days is a short period of time,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “I think in the end, people want more than anything else that we do it right.”

Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, expressed disappointment at the lack of an accord.

But, she said, “We’ve got some issues that need to be addressed. We can’t ignore them.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who disagreed with the governor’s veto threat, said he is looking to Inslee for ideas “on a path forward. Some leadership would be welcome.”

With power divided between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate, the ability to find common ground on spending has been difficult.

Last year, lawmakers labored through three special sessions before approving a two-year, $38.2 billion budget hours before the start of a partial shutdown of state government.

This year, House Democrats and Senate Republicans are debating a supplement to that spending plan.

They sharply disagree on how much more to spend and whether to use the Budget Stabilization Account, also known as the rainy day fund, to cover some expenses.

The House budget withdraws $467 million from that reserve to pay for last year’s wildfires, new services for the homeless and future school construction. Another chunk, $90.5 million, is set aside for a one-time payment for school levy equalization.

The Senate budget doesn’t tap the reserve account at all. It relies on dollars in the general fund — the main account for running state government — to cover the tab for fighting those wildfires.

The Senate plan, like the House proposal, provides money to shore up staffing at Western State Hospital. But it does not earmark extra dollars for levy equalization.

Democratic House Majority Leader Sullivan declined to discuss specific negotiations but said Senate Republicans are focused on paying for the fires and not on increasing funding for programs to help the homeless and mentally ill.

“In the end we know we have to compromise. From our perspective, we’ve certainly done more than our fair share,” he said. “They have to recognize there are more emergencies than just fires.”

And there are other differences between the two budgets.

For example, House Democrats want to raise $119 million in new taxes by closing several tax breaks. Senate Republicans want to save millions of dollars by merging two public-worker pensions.

Yet as of Thursday, the House had not voted on closing the tax breaks, nor had the Senate voted on merging the pension plans.

Schoesler also contended House Democrats can’t pull together enough votes to tap the Budget Stabilization Account in the way they seek. A super-majority vote is required to dip into those reserves, and House Republicans aren’t supportive.

Without those dollars, the House budget won’t balance through 2019, as required by law, Schoesler said.

All of the 37 bills passed with strong bipartisan support. Lawmakers could try to override the 27 vetoes. Or any bill can be reintroduced and approved again during the special session.

An adamant Schoesler said he wasn’t “going to bother to pass bills twice” just because the governor had a “tantrum.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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