Legislature enters secret talks before special session
by John Stang
Washington State Capitol Credit: Washington State House Democratic Caucus/Flickr
Legislative leaders and Gov. Jay inslee go into deep closed-door talks for the next two week to try to resolve a massive impasse between the House's and Senate's proposed budgets.
The Legislature returns for a 30-day special session on May 13 to see if any progress toward a compromise is made — and to tackle the votes and bills needed to put a potential compromise to work.
"Until that time, we will be in quick, vigorous work. …The parties aren't miles apart. At the moment, they're light years apart," Inslee said Sunday as the 105th and last day of the regular session ended.
"That's an exaggeration. … He just likes taxes a lot," said Republican Senate Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Inslee said: "I've chosen children's education over tax breaks, and hope that will prevail."
"We're still significantly far apart," said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
Legislators worked over the past weekend, stretching a few hours work across two days in public, while their leaders sparred behind the scenes. The weekend's biggest passed bill was a modified $8.4 billion transportation bill that both chambers approved. But that bill did not include the controversial segments of an accompanying, stalled transportation revenue package — a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax spread across four years and $450 million to kick-start a new bridge over the Columbia River at Vancouver. Inslee and Democrats support a new bridge. Republicans vehemently oppose it.
The House proposes a $34.33 billion operating budget for 2013-2015. The Senate wants a $33.21 billion budget.
The House wants to repeal 11 tax exemptions and extend a business-and-occupations tax for service firms to raise $1.169 billion to pay for educational improvements called for by a Washington Supreme Court ruling. The Senate contends the Supreme Court improvements can be met with $1 billion and with no new revenue. The Senate wants to cut social and health services significantly to make the budget's parts fit together. The House wants to trim those services only a little.
The House budget depends on removing $575 million from the state's emergency-related "rainy day fund." The accounting requires approval of 60 percent of the House — 59 votes out of 98. The House Democrats number 55, meaning they have to convince four Republicans to cross the aisle from a caucus that has extremely strong party discipline.
The Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus budget depends on a $166 million shift from a school construction fund to an operational fund. Democrats say that move is unconstitutional. Republicans say it’s perfectly legal. Each side has attorneys citing different sentences in the Washington Constitution. "We won't have a Washington Supreme Court ruling on that by May 13. I'll ask the Senate Republicans to defer to me on that one," Inslee said.
Also, the Majority Coalition Caucus wants to take $321 million in teacher cost-of-living raises to fund other school improvements in its $1 billion education fix-it plan. Democrats counter that the $321 million is from a fund with no money in it.
"By May 13, we hope that the negotiators have made some progress. … I will be involved as appropriate in those negotiations," Inslee said.
Inslee wants several dead policy bills also to be revived. These include the DREAM Act to give children of undocumented immigrants a chance to apply for state scholarships to college, the Reproductive Parity Act addressing abortion insurance, a transportation budget-and-projects package, a gun-background-check bill, and tougher legislation on repeat drunken drivers. Republican leaders say the DREAM Act, Reproductive Parity Act and any revival of a gun-background-checks bill are not budget measures, and should not be considered in the budget negotiations.
Meanwhile, Republican and Majority Coalition Caucus leaders consider several workers compensation reform and education reform bills, which the House Democrats have stopped, as parts of the budget. Any budget compromise must include the House passing those bills, they said.
One bill won't be bargained over during the special session. Ten Republicans co-signed a bill introduced last Thursday to allow businesses to refuse to serve customers due to religious beliefs. The bill introduced by Rep. Sharon Brown, R- Kennewick is in response to the legal flap over a Richland flower shop refusing to sell floral arrangements to a gay couple for their wedding because of the owner's religious convictions against gay marriage. The state Attorney General's office is suing Arlene's Flowers of Kennewick and Richland, charging discrimination.
The bill's language says: "The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely-held religious belief, philosophical belief or matter of conscience may not be burdened unless the government proves that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest."
Schoesler said the bill was introduced after the appropriate cut-off date, so nothing about it can be addressed until 2014 at the earliest. He described the bill as Brown responding to an issue in her district. Several Democratic senators described the bill as legalizing discrimination.