Day 99 of 105-Day Regular Session: Special Session Likely Required to Reach Budget Agreement

Lawmakers have less than a week to wrap up the regular session. Nearly everyone believes they’ll leave Olympia without adopting a budget, meaning that they’ll have to come back into special session. That’s an outcome many observers predicted even before the Legislature convened in January.

And, to be sure, special sessions are not so special any more. Two years ago it took three special sessions for lawmakers to complete their work. In recent years, the overtime sessions have become the new normal.

Still, no one looks forward to them. Last Friday, Jim Camden reported in the Spokesman-Review,

With 10 days left in the regular session of the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans seemed to be moving inexorably toward an impasse on a $43 billion-plus state budget. That will force them into overtime for the seventh time in eight years. 

“If we don’t begin budget negotiations right away, it would likely put us in special session,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said Thursday.

Both parties’ leaders say they don’t want a special session and appear ready to blame the other side if that happens.

For sure, there are significant differences in the chambers’ adopted budgets. Perhaps the biggest hurdle concerns the fact that the House has yet to adopt a revenue package. Camden writes,

Republican leaders have conditioned budget negotiations on the House passing taxes connected to its budget, saying the Senate already has approved the tax changes needed for its $43.3 billion budget.

But there are also sizable spending differences.

On Thursday, the Washington Research Council released a comparison of the two budgets, showing where they differ on key sections. The Senate budget needs about $1.6 billion in new revenue, the House budget about $3 billion. The Senate budget rejects most of the contracts negotiated with state employee unions while the House accepts them. The Senate budget repeals voter-approved initiatives that call for cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and other school employees and reductions in class sizes in elementary, junior high and high schools; the House budget pays for the school cost-of-living raises, and delays the class reductions.

The Associated Press reports some progress,

While the main budget team remains at odds, there are lawmakers who are meeting regularly to discuss the biggest piece of the plan: the education funding piece.

Republican Sen. Ann Rivers said that the bipartisan group … has been meeting several times a week, and that she’s optimistic that they’ll have a plan, though she wasn’t certain that it would happen before the clock runs out on the regular session.

“It’s really hard to do the budget until you have this piece,” she said. “I think once we have this done, then other things can happen.”

Melissa Santos reports in The News Tribune that policymakers also disagree on what role reducing local levies will play in the budget resolution.

One of the key issues dividing lawmakers as they work to fix how the state pays for schools isn’t what to include in their new two-year budget.

It’s what to do about local school district property tax levies, which right now are being used unconstitutionally to pay for state responsibilities, including some of teachers’ and other school employees’ salaries.

As she writes, the issue has both legal and political components. As does just about everything associated with education funding this session.
Another possible source of optimism: The Seattle Times editorial board praises bipartisan cooperation on developing the state’s capital budget, which includes substantial funding for school construction. 
Although the House and Senate versions of the capital budget disagree by millions of dollars in some areas, both houses seem motivated to reach a compromise on this part of the state budget. Lawmakers should be commended for this effort. Now they should apply the same enthusiasm toward reaching a compromise on the operations side of the state biennial budget.
Unfortunately, the issues involved in reaching a compromise on the operating budget appear unlikely to be so easily resolved. We’ll see.