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Having fun yet? Legislature’s endgame is just beginning

Cherry trees blooming in Olympia Credit: John Stang

The Washington Legislature is just entering the endgame for its 2015 session. That’s the behind-the-scenes budget negotiations on operating the state in 2015-2017.

As we know from the world of civics textbooks, Republican and Democratic legislators will now commence to cooperate, soon coming to a grand bargain with what is best for the state of Washington. Oh, hell, who’re we kidding? The Legislature has the social dynamics of a high school boys locker room. Things could get rough.

Of course, there are legitimate philosophical and budgetary differences that Republicans and Democrats really want to reach an accord on. But there is also a lot of ego. Gratuitous disdain. Passive-aggressive games with semantics. Politics, politics, politics — especially with the 2016 elections already on people’s minds in Olympia.

So far, we’ve seen the Legislature’s Republicans and Democrats plus the governor do choreographed dances. Gov. Jay Inslee has talked and talked about trimming carbon emissions through a carbon tax to pay for education, transportation and tax breaks for poor families — and generally taking care of the environment. The Democratic legislators have said over and over that more taxes and tax-break closures are needed to comply with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling to dramatically improve teacher-student ratios statewide in Grades K-3. The Democrats want to do all that without slicing and dicing social services. Republicans keep repeating: “No new taxes. No new taxes. No new taxes.” And they say they can still fund  education well.

Not a single surprise in any of those stances. Mostly predictable posturing.

While all the talk went on, Republican and Democratic budget gurus had been mapping out their 2015-2017 budget proposals.

“Writing a budget is as much an art as a science,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

That’s because politics is as important as crunching numbers for a budget.

On the D side, Hunter and his colleagues have to end up with a thick document guaranteed to get 50 House Democrats’ votes spread among “tax-and-spend” Seattle liberals and “whoa-on-the-taxes” moderates in swing districts.

On the R side, chief budget writer Redmond Republican Sen. Andy Hill and his colleagues have their own disparate constituencies from which they have to guarantee 25 Senate votes. There are the tax-hating Eastern Washington senators who view Seattle as the tyrannical capital city in the “Hunger Games” series. And there are the annoyed-at-taxes Puget Sound suburban moderates whose constituents sort of like Seattle, except for the traffic and the high cost-of-living.

In late March, the House Democrats and Senate Republicans unveiled their initial budget proposals for 2015-2017.

In the big picture, the House Democrats have a $38.8 billion budget proposal with $1.4 billion earmarked for improvements in Grades K-3 ordered by the Washington Supreme Court. To pay for it, there’s $1.5 billion in new revenue with a capital gains tax, an increase in the business-and-occupation tax for service firms, and the closing of seven tax breaks.

The Senate Republicans’ $38 billion budget has $1.3 billion earmarked for the court-ordered work in Grades K-3 and $40 million in new revenue from letting 15 tax breaks expire. Remember — Republicans equate new taxes with the zombie apocalypse: Let one through and it will chomp its way through the populace.

The Democrats want to nullify most of last November’s Initiative 1351 — which requires better teacher-student ratios in Grades K-12, not just in Grades K-3  — with a two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate. The GOP wants to send I 1351 — with hopes of eliminating it — to a do-over public referendum in November 2015.

This week, minority Senate Democrats and Superintendent of Public instruction Randy Dorn made separate proposals to extend phase-ins of I-1351 obligations. The Senate Democrats, the Senate Republicans and Dorn also introduced different school levy reform proposals, which will complicate negotiations over the budget.

The House Democrats and the Senate Republicans have each criticized how the other side has juggled funds internally to reach its budget goals. Each side has accused the other of doing something unconstitutional in its number-crunching.

Meanwhile, in this match’s middle game, Republicans and Democrats have tried to trip up each other (again, think: high school boys) — trying to maneuver the other party’s legislators into preliminary budget votes that will provide campaign fodder for their opponents in 2016.

For instance, on a failed amendment to the Senate transportation budget, the Democrats forced moderate Republicans to vote to declare climate change is not definitely manmade. The Senate’s GOP caucus has been trying — unsuccessfully, so far — to goad the House Democrats into voting on tax bills prior to the budget negotiations —  setting the stage for “he-or-she-voted-to-raise-taxes-a-helluva-lot-of-times” advertisements.

Intertwined with the upcoming budget negotiations is a GOP wish to stop most of Gov. Jay Inslee’s agenda items such as reducing carbon, creating clean-energy jobs and improving education — essentially forcing him to run for re-election in 2016 without accomplishing much. On the other side, the D’s hope that a GOP gubernatorial candidate who might come out of the Legislature — possibly moderate Sen. Hill, possibly not — will have some explaining to do about some budget-amendment-related votes.

The budget talks could raise other questions for Inslee’s probable re-election bid. Is it possible to meet all of the state’s obligations without raising taxes? Will a capital gains tax hurt or boost Washington economy? Will a dormant carbon emissions tax proposal be revived, and should it be? Can Inslee even get any major environmental or tax package through the Legislature?

So now, with the Legislature less than two weeks from the April 26 end of its session, we’re at the beginning of the endgame.

The endgame will play out like this.

GOP and Democratic budget writers will meet more or less constantly behind closed doors — negotiating with each other and trying to figure out what their own caucuses will accept as potential compromises. Every few days, GOP and Democratic leaders will publicly announce that progress is being made just before they publicly criticize the other side for being stubborn bastards who don’t understand arithmetic, the law and the will of the people.

Despite the looming end of the session, this dance will almost certainly continue for weeks, maybe months. The real deadline for a compromise is not the April 26 date for ending the session, but July 1, which is when the state government will partially shut down if no budget is passed. The Legislature came within three days of a shutdown in 2013. And the Democrats and Republicans’ differences now are just as wide as they were in 2013.

The bottom line is that deals will be made, and bargaining chips exchanged. Then the House and Senate will pass the new compromise budget at warp speed — with most people, including legislators, not really sure what all is in it.

Related story: The boys behind the budget doors

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