State lawmakers haggled behind closed doors over government pensions, school employee health care and the rules for future budgets as they made one last attempt Monday to avoid pushing their budget repair job into a third special session.
Gov. Chris Gregoire gave negotiators new proposals on those three sticking points and was still holding out hope of finishing by a deadline of midnight today.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said Gregoire’s plan was a “good compromise” that formed the framework of an agreement, and Senate floor action was possible late Monday night. Leaders resumed their marathon bargaining session at 8:30 p.m. and were still negotiating at 10 p.m.
“Now we’re coming back to see if we’ve actually got an agreement,” Brown, a Spokane Democrat, told reporters before going back into Gregoire’s office. But some key senators in the GOP-led Senate coalition weren’t sure that the proposal included real reforms.
“I was told in our (Democratic) caucus that we have an agreement in principle,” said Sen. Jim Kastama, a centrist Democrat from Puyallup. But “we’ve got to make sure that’s agreeable, and as of right now, we’re not there.”
A deal on closing a roughly $1 billion budget gap is all but finished – Senate budget chairman Ed Murray says negotiators are now “30 seconds away” – but Republicans and some of their allies among moderate Democrats don’t want to sign off until what they consider vital reforms are approved.
Those deal with three key areas: early-retirement benefits for state workers, health insurance for school employees and the state’s obligation to balance its books in the long term. Republicans said the parties were moving toward agreement on the school health benefits, but the long-term budgeting and proposed pension changes were still points of contention.
Senate Republican budget writer Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield calls for cutting early retirement benefits for future state hires by targeting two laws that encourage state workers to retire earlier than age 65.
A teacher who has worked for 30 years and earned a final salary of $75,545, for example, can retire at 55 and still receive an annual benefit of more than $36,000. Under Zarelli’s proposal, the benefit for new hires would dip below $17,000.
The Senate plan would save $2.6 billion over 25 years for state and local governments, Republicans say.
A competing House proposal that has not received a vote would target only one of the pair of extra early retirement benefits and would save much less, $960 million. It would leave the benefit for that hypothetical teacher who is yet to be hired at just less than $32,000.
The Republican-led coalition, including three breakaway Democrats who allowed the GOP to turn a minority into a fragile “philosophical majority” in the Senate, says the Legislature shouldn’t be allowed to take on more costs than the state can afford over a four-year period.
Kastama wanted to write a requirement for a four-year balanced budget into the state constitution, but the Senate instead voted to put it into law, where future Legislatures could change it.
House Democrats have offered a competing proposal awaiting a vote: Require the Legislature’s two-year budgets to include an outlook of how they will affect the third and fourth years. It wouldn’t require those years to be balanced.
Some lawmakers in both parties want to equalize health insurance coverage for school employees, who experience disparities depending on whether they are part-time or full-time and whether they opt for family or individual coverage.
Sen. Steve Hobbs, a Lake Stevens Democrat who isn’t part of the GOP-led coalition but shares some of its priorities, wanted to consolidate school districts’ health care plans. They are now subject to bargaining between each school district and its school employee unions, which are split on whether change is needed.
A compromise proposal approved by the Senate leaves bargaining at the local level – but only for school districts that fulfill certain requirements. Among them: Districts would have to make all employees pay some premiums, and would have to offer family coverage that costs no more than three times as much as individual coverage.
The state would spend a planned $26 million to implement the plan.
A competing plan by House Democrats, awaiting a vote, mainly requires more reporting by school districts. It would also limit the number of insurance pools in which employees are grouped.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826