Olympia's faux-Sine-Die moment

In a pause before the special session begins, the state's three top Democrats tout the accomplishments of the regular session.
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Washington Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

In a pause before the special session begins, the state's three top Democrats tout the accomplishments of the regular session.

Even though it was a faux end, the House of Representatives erupted in celebratory applause and cheers last Thursday night when the final gavel fell on the 2010 regular session of the legislature. Soon after — in typical Sine Die fashion — the wine and booze were flowing in the Capitol.

One notable difference between this year (when lawmakers are headed into a special session) and years when the legislature finishes its work on time: Minority Republicans cleared out quickly. And all was quiet over in Lt. Gov. Brad Owen'ꀙs office, where traditionally his band fires up — Owen plays guitar, drums, and sax — and the legislative people dance the night away.

In the hours leading up to adjournment, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp unleashed his inner 'ꀜTony the Tiger.'ꀝ The Wallingford Democrat was suddenly exuberant over a quartet of education reform bills that were going to serve as the capstone to the regular session. They'ꀙre going to be 'ꀜgreat,'ꀝ he told reporters loitering in the House wings. One of the bills makes pre-school an entitlement program in Washington, but not until 2018. Another is designed to position Washington to compete for federal 'ꀜRace to the Top'ꀝ dollars. The bills had bipartisan support and debate was mercifully short, which meant that instead of the usual midnight adjournment, the legislature called it a wrap before 9 pm.

Forty-five minutes after Sine Die was gaveled, the action moved to the governor'ꀙs conference room on the second floor of the statehouse. There Gov. Chris Gregoire, flanked by Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, formally announced the special session. Lawmakers would be given the weekend off to reunite with their families, but called back today at noon to resume negotiations between the House and Senate on a budget and tax plan plus, at Gregoire'ꀙs insistence, a jobs package. The controversial proposal to raise the state'ꀙs voter-approved hazardous materials or MOTCA tax will likely also be on the agenda.

It'ꀙs a rare occasion when Gregoire, Brown, and Chopp, the three most powerful Democrats in Washington, appear together before the cameras. The Three Tenors they are not. If you were telling it as a joke you might start: 'ꀜA recovering lawyer, a policy wonk, and a political strategist walk into a bar 'ꀦ.'ꀝ

By all accounts the trio gets along well enough behind closed doors. But in public it'ꀙs evident they are not entirely at ease with one another. The late-night news conference (video) featured a couple of mildly awkward moments such as when Brown ceded the podium to Chopp forcing Gregoire to slip behind the both of them and Do-Si-Do with the Washington state flag. Upon taking the podium, Chopp turned to Brown and complimented her elocution. 'ꀜVery well spoken. Wow! This is great.'ꀝ

For the question period with reporters, Chopp happily let the elocutionally advantaged Brown take the lead. And the lead she took. For the bulk of the remainder of the news conference, Brown (who harbors gubernatorial ambitions) held the podium while the real governor and Chopp flanked her.

The gist of the news conference was majority Democrats had accomplished much during the 60-day session, but that more time was needed to rebalance the budget and agree on which taxes to raise. In particular, Gregoire praised lawmakers for sending voters a constitutional amendment to allow judges to deny bail in more than just capital murder cases.

Asked to respond to Republican criticisms that an overtime session is 'ꀜcostly'ꀝ and 'ꀜembarrassing,'ꀝ Chopp was dismissive. 'ꀜWe finished on-time seven out of the last sessions and they basically always say negative things at the end of session. There'ꀙs nothing new there.'ꀝ

Gregoire wasn'ꀙt about to let it go at that. She stepped around Brown, reclaimed her podium, and unleashed a salvo: 'ꀜTo my friends on the other side of the aisle, I say explain to me how any state has done a better job than Washington state. And since I'ꀙve been in office we'ꀙve never had a special session following the regular session. But we have never experienced an 80-year recession like what we'ꀙre experiencing now.'ꀝ

Republicans have zero sympathy. They point out that it'ꀙs one-party Democratic rule in Olympia and note that back in December they called for a special session to get a head start on rebalancing the budget.

Now comes the encore performance at a cost of $18,000/day. House and Senate Democrats have bought themselves an extra week to reconcile their differences and agree on a budget and tax plan to close the $2.7 billion shortfall in the current biennial budget, which runs through June 2011. Technically the special session runs 30-days, but Gregoire said she'ꀙs confident a deal can be struck within seven days.

You might imagine the lead negotiators sequestering themselves in a room somewhere — similar to binding arbitration sessions — to hash out a deal. Eventually that may happen in a conference committee. But initially that'ꀙs not how it works. The process is more akin to a business deal. Last week, the House and Senate traded written offers in an attempt to first agree on how much to spend, how much to raise in taxes, and how much to leave in the ending fund balance to help with the projected shortfall of $2 billion for the next biennium.

Once the size of the tax and spend boxes is established, the details of what to tax and what to buy have to be worked out. Some of the differences between the House and Senate are minor, but others are formidable. For instance, the Senate budget eliminates more than $100 million in K-4 class-size funding while the House mostly preserves it. On taxes, the Senate has approved a three-tenths-of-one-percent temporary sales tax hike while the House says the sales tax is a non-starter.

The trick for negotiators is bridging the budget and tax gap between the two chambers without jeopardizing too many votes in the process. In the Senate there'ꀙs almost no margin, since the budget and omnibus tax package passed with the bare minimum 25 votes. Of course, whatever the House and Senate agree on also has to have the governor'ꀙs sign-off. She too gets a vote.


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