State lawmakers ‘out in space,’ need 3rd session

They acknowledge being far apart in budget negotiations, hope to avoid government shutdown

Staff writerJune 11, 2013 

The chambers of the state House of Representatives in January 2013.

TONY OVERMAN — Staff photographer Buy Photo

The philosophical gap between a Republican-steered state Senate and Democrat-controlled House over taxes and government reforms is driving Washington’s Legislature into a second, 30-day special session that is expected to start Wednesday morning.

Lawmakers from both sides acknowledged Monday they cannot finish by the end of Tuesday, which is the final day of the first 30-day special session.

“We’re not going to get done tomorrow,” Senate Republican Caucus Leader Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee said after a trip to the House wings to set up a meeting with House Speaker Frank Chopp’s team. “People just need to talk.”

The new two-year budget cycle begins July 1, and agencies typically need an appropriation from lawmakers to spend taxpayer dollars. That is leading to fears — and heightening rhetoric — about who is to blame if the stalemate persists and government has to shut down.

Democrats accused the GOP of importing Washington, D.C.-style politics to force a government shutdown. Republicans said the holdup was Democrats’ unwillingness to consider reforms.

Democrats shaved $800 million in spending and taxes from their budget plan last week, but the GOP-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate has not answered with a commitment to new tax revenues. On Saturday, the Senate coalition approved a $33.3 billion operating budget plan that was little changed from the one it passed in April.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, held hearings Monday on three revenue bills that could raise close to $300 million — mostly by closing new tax loopholes created by state Supreme Court rulings on the estate tax and phone service.

The House has already approved bills that fix the court-created loopholes in the estate and telecom taxes. The House Democrats also passed bills that close tax exemptions for a half-dozen interests — including a sales-tax break for out-of-state shoppers, an inadvertent tax break used by oil refiners, and a tax break on sales of bottled water.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said the coalition needs an assurance of reforms before acting on any Democratic proposals for revenue. The Senate passed several reform bills Sunday, and Tom said his caucus is willing to give voters the final say on those reforms to win Democratic support.

Coalition leaders want to let injured workers accept early buyouts of disability pensions to save what they claim is up to $1 billion in future workers’ compensation insurance premiums paid by employers. They also want to put a cap on government spending on nonschool programs and to give school principals more power over which teachers are transferred into their schools.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, accused the Senate Republicans – who share power in a coalition with Tom and one other renegade Democrat – of holding the budget hostage in order to win passage of policy bills that died during the regular session.

“We are still pretty far apart,” Sullivan said, noting that Gov. Jay Inslee had said last month that the chambers were light years apart. “I would say we are still somewhere out in space.’’

Inslee said last week that if lawmakers were deadlocked, he would likely call the Legislature back into session Wednesday morning to keep working. His aides said Monday that was still the game plan.

The Legislature was busy Monday despite the larger standoff. The House passed a stop-gap construction budget bill with money for ongoing projects. The $2.4 billion measure passed easily on a 83-10 vote.

But the rhetoric was less bipartisan. House Capital Budget Chairman Hans Dunshee said the emergency plan was needed to protect 24,000 construction jobs that would slam to a halt on July 1 if the Senate Republicans pushed forward with a government shutdown.

House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen of Snohomish responded that a shutdown was not inevitable and that all that was needed was for leaders in the House and Senate to discuss their differences.

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