Setting the stage for tense negotiations with Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats, the state Senate passed a $33.21 billion tentative 2013-2015 budget Friday. The budget has no new taxes, no closures of tax exemptions, and $1 billion earmarked to start complying with a Washington Supreme Court ruling — the "McCleary decision" — that the state is not meeting its constitutional duties to provide basic education for grades K-12.
The Senate approved the budget on a 30-to-18 vote.
The House Democrats' budget is expected to include new revenues, put more into education and protect more social service programs from cuts. Establishing one front for further battles, Senate Democrats argued that $166 million of the $1 billion that the Washington Senate budget allocates to basic education fix-it work comes from an unconstitutional source.
However, their chief budget negotiator disagreed.
During Friday's debate, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, contended that part of the McCleary $1 billion comes from state Department of Natural Resources trust land: timber sales money normally provided for school construction. He said it is unconstitutional to reroute state trust land revenue to the state's operating budget to fund the McCleary obligations. Earlier, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and the House's chief budget writer, made the same criticism.
Frockt warned, "We're going to get a lawsuit out of this."
Republicans did not reply to Frockt's statement during Friday's Senate debate. However, the Senate Democrats' chief budget negotiator, Sen. James Hargrove of Hoquiam, participated with the Republicans in writing the budget. Hargrove said the Senate Ways & Means Committee legal staff researched that issue and concluded the shift is constitutional.
The politics of Friday's budget vote were complicated.
The Majority Coalition Caucus — 23 Republicans and two Democrats — had the votes to punch through any budget it wanted. But the coalition wanted the endorsement of a good chunk of the 24 minority Democrats in order to jockey for a good position in upcoming budget talks with the Democratic-controlled House. The House is expected to unveil its proposed budget in the next few days.
So, Hargrove and the Democrats' No. 2 budget writer Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, represented the minority in the putting together the budget with the majority coalition with the understanding they would support the finished product. Democrats described the process as bipartisan, but repeatedly added that the actual budget is not bipartisan.
Ultimately, nine Democrats voted for the budget along with 21 Republicans. Two were Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch — the two Democrats in the majority coalition. Besides Hargrove and Nelson, five other minority Democrats — the most moderate ones — voted for the budget. On the Republican side, strong conservative Sen. Mike Padden, R- Spokane Valley, voted against the budget. Sen. Mike Carrell, R- Lakewood, is hospitalized with a blood disease, and was absent.
Four of the Democrats voting for the budget, including Hargrove and Nelson, want the Senate to explore finding new tax revenue or closing exemptions to find additional money later in this session's budget negotiations.
No new taxes and keeping all tax exemptions intact has been the philosophical cornerstone of the alliance Senate Majority Leader Tom, Sheldon and the 23 Republicans. Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and the coalition's chief budget writer, said, "We built this in a bipartisan manner. ...We had a clear message from the voters that they don't want new taxes."
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, "We have a balanced budget, and we didn't raise taxes."
Hargrove said the philosophically split Senate needed to pass a tentative budget on Friday in order to have something on the table to begin talks with the House and Gov. Jay Inslee. "If we didn't pass a budget tonight, we never would have gotten one out. Then we would have to wait for one to come out of the House," Hargrove said.
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