At least some of the hidden bargaining chips are becoming visible.
There's a fish study that could delay the Boeing Co.'s need to make expensive pollution fixes. A "go" or "no-go" decision on replacing the Columbia River bridge at Vancouver. Possibly an esoteric payroll tax matter that affects major corporations.
Or maybe the Republican-oriented Washington Senate and the Democratic-controlled House are still split on education and workers compensation reform bills versus closing six tax exemptions to improve Washington's schools. Then again, maybe the two sides are still hashing out how $1 billion should actually be spent to improve the state's schools and meet a state Supreme Court mandate.
Negotiators were not talking specifics Tuesday — saying only that the two sides are very close to an agreement. Actually, everyone has been saying that for several days now.
"Right now, we're down to the details. ... More important than expediency is getting the job done right," said Senate Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.
Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and one of the House's negotiators, used the old dog years comparison, saying that in terms of what gets accomplished, an hour of negotiations now equals one or more days of normal time. "We're making exponential progress in dog hours," said Carlyle, who was "out of metaphors" for describing the talks.
The current (2011-2013) fiscal biennium ends on Sunday. Come Monday morning at least 26,000 state employees face unpaid furloughs if lawmakers don't sign off on a 2013-2015-budget appropriation.
Several aspects of the budget discussions surfaced Tuesday in Olympia.
The House wants a transportation revenue package that calls for a 6 cents per gallon gas tax hike. The six cent increase to the current 38 cent per gallon tax rate would take effect on Aug 1. Another 4.5 cents per gallon bump would kick in on July 1, 2014. House Republicans made several unsuccessful attempts on Tuesday to remove the Vancouver-Portland Bridge replacement from the transportation package, and also failed to create an easy opening to a fall public referendum to approve the package.
House Democrats stopped short of calling for a vote Tuesday — which they would have won — on the roughly $10 billion transportation revenue package, in order to have a flexible bargaining chip in the deadlocked budget talks with the Senate. House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said that the caucus leaders had delayed the vote and referred questions to them, but they were in talks with the Senate leaders and could not be reached for comment. Clibborn is expecting the Senate to put together a different transportation revenue package, meaning negotiations will have to continue on that matter.
The Vancouver-Portland bridge replacement is vehemently opposed by Republicans in both chambers. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus has a 25-24 margin to defeat the $450 million appropriation needed to greenlight that project. A major wrinkle is that the revenue package would also fund a project to extend State Route 167 to the port of Tacoma, which is a big priority of Pierce County's governments and business interests. Three majority coalition members represent Pierce County. That trio — Sens. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, and Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County — will have to choose between their caucus and their constituents if House Democrats keep the Route 167 and Columbia River bridge projects linked in the revenue bill.
The majority coalition caucus can delay both projects and other transportation work by simply not taking the revenue package to a floor vote — effectively killing the work until at least 2014.
The Senate majority coalition has been lukewarm about passing a transportation revenue package this year. The coalition does not like the gas tax increase. The House package has $450 million earmarked for the Vancouver-Portland bridge, so Oregon and the feds will foot their proposed shares of the project, which has a $3.5 billion price tag. Tolls will provide up to $1.3 billion of the cost. (The project also includes highway lane expansions, interchange replacements and light rail.)
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