For the sixth time in seven years, state lawmakers couldn’t finish their work on time.
Lawmakers adjourned their 60-day regular session Thursday evening and Gov. Jay Inslee called a special session that started minutes later. Inslee complained the reliance on overtime sessions is becoming too much of a habit, particularly considering “the relatively light lifting” required this year.
The Democratic governor had threatened to veto the bills piling up on his desk if no on-time deal was reached. In the end, Inslee rejected 27 measures, including one allowing for marijuana research licenses and another regarding the refrigeration of noodles.
“I recognize that this is perhaps the largest batch of vetoes in state history,” Inslee told reporters Thursday night. “None of these vetoed bills were as important as the fundamental responsibility of the Legislature to produce a balanced budget.”
Republicans criticized the move. “This is not governing. This is a tantrum,” Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, said in a statement. Angel sponsored a vetoed measure that would have changed financial rules for public-health districts.
The proposals are largely uncontroversial, and the House and Senate could presumably muster the votes to override any vetoes or pass new versions if legislative leaders were to make that effort.
Inslee did sign 10 proposals, including one requiring longer prison sentences for vehicular homicide.
Inslee has weeks before he needs to act on other proposals, including an attempt to save charter schools that passed the Legislature on the last day of the regular session. He said he would have a similarly high bar for any other bills until a budget deal is reached.
Lawmakers now have a new 30-day clock in their overtime session to reach agreement.
The budget standoff that has forced a special session lacks some of the high stakes of years past. There’s no impending government shutdown, no nose dive in revenue available for the current budget, no major tax increases or tuition hikes on tap.
The problem is in the long term. Democrats who control the House and Republicans who run the Senate can’t agree how to align state spending with revenue over four years.
“The two-year budget isn’t really an issue,” Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said Thursday. “It’s the four-year outlook.”
There’s widespread agreement the state needs to update the current two-year budget to add money in problem areas — last summer’s worse-than-expected forest fires, for example, and staffing gaps at Western State Hospital.
But Republicans want to largely stick to overall existing spending levels. The Senate budget would pay for targeted spending increases partly by using unspent money, including money meant to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and the reserves of local mental-health agencies.
Democrats in the House also have a longer wish list, including raising teacher pay. They want to close some tax exemptions and tap the state’s rainy-day fund to help pay for it. The Senate budget does neither, although Republicans haven’t closed the door to either option.
The disputes are magnified by a requirement that budgets balance over four years. The mandate originated in 2012 as the result of a proposal by former Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup.
Republicans want to comply in part by merging two long-closed pension plans, freeing up a surplus in a plan for firefighters and police without cutting their benefits. Retiree groups and unions representing first responders have lined up against the plan, calling for more study of the implications for benefits.
Democrats would comply with the outlook requirement partly by not counting a planned ramp-up of money for class-size reduction — reasoning that the four-year requirement excluded spending to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling that schools are unconstitutionally underfunded. Lawmakers are already using that exemption to put off reckoning with a much larger responsibility, relieving school districts from covering part of teachers’ base salaries.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said Democrats are trying to ignore class-size reductions that are based on current law. He said the Legislature shouldn’t “make a mockery of, or abolish, the four-year balanced budget.”
“We do not want to go back to the roller coaster of deficits and surpluses,” Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said.
House budget chairman Hans Dunshee says that to the contrary, the four-year requirement makes the ups and downs more severe because small changes in short-term revenue can translate into huge changes in long-term forecasts that might well be wrong. Dunshee, D-Snohomish, calls it a “flaky projection.”
“It’s in the last year of the second Inslee term that we’re trying to project a budget for,” he said.
Dunshee said he’s trying to respect Republicans’ need for a four-year balanced budget and said he’s offered ways to meet it.
“None of this argument is about this budget,” he said. “It’s all about the next budget.”
The last day of the regular session included some farewells. The longest-serving member of the Legislature, Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, who took office in 1985, announced he would not run for another term.
For those who do plan to run for re-election or for other offices, more time in Olympia is not what they want. They are not allowed to raise campaign contributions while in session, while in many cases their opponents are free to go on raising money.
The same restrictions bind Inslee, who is seeking a second term this fall and faces Republican Bill Bryant.