Politics blog

House-Senate budget negotiators 'close,' still expecting to adjourn on time

Staff writerMarch 12, 2014 

The Washington state Legislative Building shown in a June 2013 file photo.

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian

The Washington Legislature was closing in on a final supplemental budget agreement Wednesday evening that would let lawmakers adjourn their 60-day session on schedule by midnight Thursday.

Neither Democrats controlling the House nor Republicans steering the Senate were willing to divulge key elements of any deal – including whether it includes closure of tax exemptions that could pay for cost-of-living pay adjustments for teachers and other public school employees.

But both sides planned to brief their members on the agreement in caucuses Thursday morning before pushing the deal to a vote.

"I think the big picture is put to bed and they are down to the many, many details in a complex document, and I certainly believe they can make it,'' Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said.

“I fully expect that we will be able to go home tomorrow,” House Appropriations Committee chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, added.  “I think we will be able to come to an agreement very soon. We’re working out details.’’

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, declined to speculate on whether he’ll need to call a special session, and he also refused to say whether cost-of-living raises for teachers, which he proposed, were part of the pending deal. Inslee said talks were down to "smaller dollar issues that need to be fitted into a constrained box. There's a lot of fitting going on right now.''

Negotiators had worked all night Tuesday, ending marathon talks at about 5 a.m. Wednesday. A handful of weary negotiators and their staffers resumed work mid-morning Wednesday, and top lawmakers said they were continuing to iron out details of an agreement in the afternoon.

Key issues dividing the chambers were the usual – taxes and spending on schools. The Republicans dominating the Senate’s majority coalition had proposed smaller increases in K-12 spending than the House – with just over $38 million in the Senate versus about $60 million in the House.

Lawmakers are under orders from the state Supreme Court to speed up their full funding of basic education by 2017-18, and the two chambers have clashed over what that means.

The Senate also was proposing a few new tax breaks – or continuation of expiring tax breaks – while also refusing to consider new revenues. The Democrat-controlled House sought to close four tax breaks and enforce tougher financial disclosure rules for recipients of tax breaks enacted to promote economic development.  

Several other measures remained in flux. Negotiators in both chambers were working a new approach to medical marijuana regulation that would leave terms of the recreational marijuana initiative intact, avoiding the need for a two-thirds super-majority in the House to pass a bill.

Republicans in the House were balking at the Senate-passed measure that did not provide revenue-sharing for cities and counties that would have to enforce Initiative 502 in communities that have recreational marijuana stores.

Lawmakers indicated they had a plan to enact a law letting military veterans qualify for in-state tuition rates. And talks continued on a teacher evaluation measure that is meant to retain the state’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act and school districts’ control over how to spend $38 million in federal aid to help struggling students.

Time also was running out on a supplemental capital budget. A sticking point is the new office building project that would house the State Patrol headquarters on the Capitol Campus. An error by the House in estimating interest costs last year has driven estimated operating costs on the project above a key level set by lawmakers last year when they authorized the $82 million project.

The Senate’s top negotiator, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, wants to let the project die. Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee of Snohomish said the project remains alive for another year if there is no capital budget agreement. Three teams of architects and engineers have submitted detailed plans for the project, and their proposals are to be unveiled in a public meeting in Olympia on March 19 – unless the project is killed. If no capital budget is adopted that has language killing the project, Dunshee and Honeyford agree that up to $13 million appropriated last year can still be spent to demolish the site now occupied by a parking garage and office building.

This post was updated to note plans to brief caucuses Thursday morning.

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