Inslee, lawmakers tussle over drunk driving & budget negotiations

It's only Day 1 of the special session, but there's no shortage of political infighting.

Neither side has apparently made any legitimate concessions in the past two weeks of closed-door budget talks over Washington's  2013-2015 operating budget.

Both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Senate Majority Coalition held press conferences Monday on the talks — and the lack of significant progress was the message that emerged for those reading between-the-lines.

"We have not, in my view, made ... progress," Inslee said. 

Both sides said compromises will eventually be made, but declined to elaborate, citing an agreement to keep the talks confidential until compromises are reached. Though both said they wanted to hammer out compromises on budgets and legislation within the 30-day special session that started Monday, neither appeared in a hurry to get anything nailed in the next several days.

The Legislature's 105-day regular session ended April 28, after which Inslee called for the two-week break so that lawmakers could start working on compromises behind the scenes.

On Monday, Inslee named his top three priorities for the special session: a budget compromise, a new transportation revenue package and a tougher drunk driving bill. "We've gotta focus like a laser beam on those top three priorities," he said.

He also still hopes to pass the DREAM Act and the Reproductive Parity Act, which would address abortion insurance.

On his list for tougher drunk driving penalties are ignition guards for those convicted of a certain number of offenses and special wristbands that would alert retailers and bartenders not to sell alcohol to those with a specific number of drunk driving convictions. According to Inslee, roughly 200 Washingtonians die a year from drunk driving accidents. "Saving your life has to be a top priority," he said.

Majority coalition leaders, however, don't think any agreement will be reached this week. They want to see a cost study and data from other states to show the effectiveness of the measures and they want public hearings on the bill before they agree to a compromise. 

Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said the drunk driving bill will not be used as a horse-trading measure in the negotiations over the budgets and other stalled bills. "It's not a bargaining chip at all. We want to do it right," Tom said.

The majority coalition has its own education reform and workers compensation bills that have stalled in the House — and which it wants passed as part of budget negotiations. 

The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, Tom said, is not willing to split the difference with the House Democrats. His rationale: The Senate's proposed budget is already a compromise, since seven Senate Democrats voted to pass it. The Democratically-controlled House on the other hand, passed its proposed budget almost strictly along party lines. Consequently, Tom argued that House Democrats need to concede more than the Senate majority coalition.

Not everyone agrees with Tom's logic though. When the Senate budget passed 30-18, two of the seven Democrats were Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who jumped the aisle last December to create the Majority Coalition Caucus. The top two Democratic budget writers only agreed to support the Senate budget in return for being able to give input in writing it. Another Democrat said she voted for the Senate budget solely because of a labor-related promise. 

When it came to the funding shifts needed to implement the Senate's budget proposal, only three Democrats were in support: Tom and Sheldon, who don't belong to the Senate's Democratic Caucus, and Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam — who, as the Democrats' chief budget writer, felt obligated to stick to the earlier agreement. 

The bottom line: The Senate budget is just as close to partisanship as the House budget.

Meanwhile, the transportation package is stalled. House Democrats want to phase in a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike over four years, and to appropriate $450 million to begin replacing the Vancouver-Portland bridge over the Columbia River — a $3.5 billion project. Republicans oppose both the gas tax hike and the bridge project because it includes light rail and three upriver businesses won't be able to get their ships under the new bridge.

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