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Legislature back for a second chance on budget talks

The dome of the state Capitol Credit: Jim Heising/Flickr

After some weekend gamesmanship aimed at embarrassing the opposite party, legislators launch a special today with one big task: writing a state budget for the next two years. It’s exactly what they were supposed to be doing in the 105-day regular session that ended Sunday.

Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the special session to begin at 10 a.m., and it may not be the only overtime that’s needed before the state’s constitutional deadline for a new budget on June 30. Lawmakers came within three days of provoking a partial state government shutdown in 2013 and 2015.

“It’s disappointing that the state of Washington is in this state again. … Legislators need to talk and they need to trade offers,” Inslee said.

In the 105-day regular session, the Legislature passed bills strengthening drunk-driving laws, authorizing enhanced driver’s licenses, banning the holding of a smartphone while driving, and allowing women to buy a year’s worth of birth control at a time.

Besides the budget-talks deadlock, this new special session will include continued talks on a paid family leave bill, which both sides are optimistic about.

Talks will continue on a Senate Republican bill to deal with a 2016 Washington Supreme Court ruling limiting the digging of private wells over their effects on fish in nearby streams. This bill has stalled in the Democratic-controlled House. But Democrat leaders voiced optimism about a compromise.

A bipartisan House bill — passed 87-10 — to regulate the sale of personal information by internet service providers is now in the Senate. Despite 35 out of 49 senators voicing support for it, the leader of the Republican-dominated Senate, Sen. Mark Schoesler, has said he does not want to send it to a floor vote. The measure is seen as a rebuke to President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress, which opened up sale of personal information by the service providers.

Before the session ended, the two parties put on a final show of squabbling with each other. Washington Senate Republicans fought like hell Friday to vote on their own last-minute bills that they planned to defeat anyway — mainly to embarrass Democrats. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats fought like hell to avoid a floor vote on the same bills, despite supporting the measures in the long run — mainly to avoid being embarrassed by the GOP.

The Senate Republicans won by defeating two bills calling for a capital gains tax and a business-and occupation tax overhaul, both ideas advanced by some House Democrats. Both bills died by 48-0 votes.

Prior to the actual floor votes, Senate Majority Leader Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said, “We will find out how many votes there are for these taxes.”

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, told Senate Democrats, “You are voting ‘no’ tonight on the foundation that Gov. Inslee built his budget on and the House Democrats built their budget on.”

Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes and a lead House Democratic budget negotiator, said, “That is just a stunt. It is a waste of taxpayers’ resources. It is a waste of time.” Senate Democrats and Inslee said it was pointless to vote on tax measures until the two parties have negotiated a mutually agreeable budget before taking tax-related vote.

The bottom line is that the Senate spent almost seven hours of Friday — the 103rd day of a 105-day regular session — on a big battle with nothing real at stake.

Friday’s parliamentary showdown will have no real effect on the state’s taxes or funding of services. The Senate GOP will gloat a little in the Capitol Dome. The House Democrats will ignore the Republican gloating. Instead, Friday’s battle shows a Legislature where scoring “gotcha” points comes before negotiating a 2017-2019 state government budget.

And that’s where the Washington Legislature is today at the beginning of its first 30-day special session — no legitimate negotiations so far on the state’s revenue and expenses after 105 days.

In March, the two sides unveiled their 2017-2019 budget proposals. The GOP wants a $43 billion budget, while the House Democrats proposed a $44.9 billion plan on Monday. The GOP budget cuts some social services that the Democrats want to keep. Both sides are under the gun from a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state is not adequately providing a basic education for its kindergartners through third graders. The Legislature has made some progress in the past five years, but is still short of the Supreme Court’s requirements.

It’s unknown how long it will be until heavy-duty budget talks will start and when the discussions will end. “Until we sit down and start to work, it’s hard to predict,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

Inslee said, “I’m doing everything I can do, short of water boarding, to get the two sides to compromise.”

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