Politics & Government

Government might shut down this weekend as state lawmakers still can't agree on budget

Could Washington state government actually shut down?

Leaders of Washington's Legislature hadn't announced a deal on a new state budget as of Tuesday evening, putting the government in danger of partially shutting down Saturday, July 1.
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Leaders of Washington's Legislature hadn't announced a deal on a new state budget as of Tuesday evening, putting the government in danger of partially shutting down Saturday, July 1.

Washington state lawmakers were veering dangerously close Tuesday to not reaching a budget deal in time to avert a partial government shutdown July 1.

As of Tuesday evening — three days before the deadline to avoid a shutdown of state services — legislative leaders hadn’t announced even a tentative agreement on a new two-year state budget. Lawmakers planned to negotiate late into the evening Tuesday and possibly into Wednesday to try to reach a deal.

By the same point in 2015, lawmakers had already emerged to publicly announce they had the workings of a budget agreement. That year, Gov. Jay Inslee ended up signing the budget into law with fewer than 30 minutes to go before midnight June 30, the deadline to prevent most agencies from partially or fully closing down.

The 2015 deal was announced in the early morning hours June 27, with lawmakers offering more details later in the day.

This year, things haven’t been progressing as quickly.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday afternoon how close negotiators were. State Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett and the vice chairwoman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said they still had major disagreements to resolve.

“I would say there’s 10 really big, thorny issues left,” Robinson said. “But we’ve made really huge progress.”

Other leaders said Tuesday they don’t think people should be too worried about a shutdown, which has never happened before.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville, said he couldn’t say if a budget agreement would be reached on Tuesday, but added: “I can tell you we’re all incredibly optimistic.”

State Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes and the chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, said lawmakers would stay up all night to come to an agreement if necessary.

“We anticipate we will be done in time to ensure we don’t have a government shutdown,” Lytton said.

Lytton said to avoid the shutdown, which would put 32,000 state workers temporarily out of work, lawmakers probably need to reach a deal by Wednesday morning at the latest.

Key negotiators said one of the main things holding up a budget deal is finalizing a solution to comply with the 2012 state Supreme Court education ruling known as the McCleary decision.

In that decision, the high court ruled Washington must take on the full cost of teacher and other school employee salaries that are currently paid for in part by local levies. Schoesler described the task as a “generational” change in how the state pays for education.

Lawmakers have been deadlocked on how to make those changes — and how to pay for them — for months.

“That’s why this is so much more complex than any budget any of us here have ever seen,” Schoesler said.

Democrats first angled to hike some existing taxes and implement new ones, including creating a new tax on capital gains and implementing a plan to collect more taxes from online shoppers.

The House Democratic plan proposed spending about $44.7 billion over two years — about $1.6 billion more than a rival plan from Republicans.

Republicans, who control the Senate with the help of one conservative Democrat, had a plan that relied heavily on a new statewide property tax to pay for the McCleary solution and the state budget. They would also restrict local school levies more than Democrats would.

The two sides have made concessions since their original budget proposals. Democrats have moved off their capital gains tax, Inslee has said.

Chatter around the Capitol is that Republicans are warming to the online sales tax idea, while Democrats are rumored to have met Republicans partway on raising the statewide property tax.

Besides McCleary, lawmakers also are grappling with upgrades to the state’s mental health system and whether or not they should pay for state worker contracts negotiated between employee unions and Inslee.

The GOP has said the contracts are too expensive, but Democrats maintain raises for state workers are necessary to keep the state competitive with private sector jobs.

Leaders from both parties have been reticent to share specifics of negotiations, which have gone on behind closed doors for weeks. Only a handful of lawmakers take part in the talks. In 2015, lawmakers openly traded budget offers, but legislators say such public bartering can impede reaching a deal.

If a compromise on the budget is reached before a shutdown, most lawmakers will have only a short period of time to review the plan before voting on it. The same goes for the staff in the governor’s office — who will have to scrutinize the budget to decide whether to veto any portions of it.

David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, said the administration will divide the budget up to read it closely.

Lytton said lawmakers can go back and fix parts of the budget if anything “doesn’t work.”

It’s possible the plan will be available to the public for only a day or two before lawmakers approve it.

Of higher importance, legislative leaders say, is avoiding a shutdown.

Inslee said Tuesday he knows there is “very considerable anxiety that exists because of this uncertainty among state employees, and most importantly, the people they serve.”

“We want legislators to focus on being able to relieve that anxiety as soon as possible,” Inslee said.

Later, he added: “Washingtonians deserve it.”