Gregoire can bring lawmakers to Olympia, but what will they do?

Gov. Gregoire has said she will call a special session on the budget. The details still need to be worked out by legislators, and the talks may not be going well.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire at a Langley rally during the 2008 campaign, when political winds were blowing in favor of Democrats.

Gov. Gregoire has said she will call a special session on the budget. The details still need to be worked out by legislators, and the talks may not be going well.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

I'm reminded of this expression as I watch Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers engage in special session negotiations.

On Monday, Gregoire played her trump card. She vowed to call a budget-cutting special session whether majority Democrats have a budget deal or not.

This represented a change of course for the governor. Previously, she said she'd only call a special session if there was a deal because she wanted to avoid a protracted special session. Once she calls lawmakers back into session, the clock runs for 30 days.

From what I'm hearing, Gregoire's "like-it-or-not" special session isn't going over very well in the legislative branch.

Some majority Democratic members believe "early-action" savings can and should be addressed first thing in January during the regular session. Others believe if the governor wants a special session, she should be leading the effort (i.e. working the phones) to get a plurality of members on board with a deal — something she told reporters Monday she's leaving to the leadership.

Furthermore, lawmakers don't like having their hand forced by the executive branch. This is especially true in the state Senate, considered the more deliberative of the two chambers.

Add in the fact that the Democratic caucuses are in flux right now. Following the November election, a number of members are leaving either because of retirements or because they lost their re-election bids. A crop of new lawmakers are waiting at the gates. Members also have private-sector jobs, pre-session vacations, and even surgeries scheduled. This is, after all, a citizen legislature.

(I should mention here that State Sen. Joe Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee, has no patience for these complicating factors. He says the majority party has known for months that the budget is a train wreck and should have been ready to hit the ground running immediately after the election. He's clearly exasperated that Democrats are just now briefing their caucuses on the scope of the budget problem and possible cuts that could be made in the short term.)

Gregoire, who never served in the legislature, is known around Olympia as something of a "closer." She works individual lawmakers for the last one or two votes that might be needed to pass a bill off the floor. But legislative coalition-building from the ground up, so I've been told, is not her expertise.

Another complaint I've heard: Gregoire offers budget solutions that are completely unpalatable to the leadership, much less the membership (i.e. cancelling the Basic Health Plan or Disability Lifeline).

So what does this portend for the special session? Here as some possible outcomes.

A. Lawmakers will meet and fail to agree on anything. Unlikely.

B. Consenus will gel and the legislature will take a major bite (think $700M) out of the projected $1.1B shortfall in the current two-year budget, which ends June 30, 2011. Doubtful.

C. Lawmakers will meet and agree to some fairly non-controversial budget savings that will take a small bite out of the projected deficit. More likely.

I'm hearing the goal, in a special session, would be to cut the shortfall by $400 million to $600 million.

An example of the kind of cut/savings lawmakers are considering? Using $200 million in federal education dollars to help reduce the budget shortfall.

What doesn't appear to be on the table? Across-the-board state employee pay cuts, the cancellation of major social service programs, or other truly controversial reductions.

As one lawmaker explained to me, the danger is that a divisive special session could "poison" the atmosphere in the statehouse making things all the more difficult when lawmakers return in January to confront the larger $5.7 billion shortfall through the middle of 2013.

The thing to watch in the coming days: Will Gov. Gregoire be able to get those legislative horses to drink?

This article originally appeared on the author's blog, The Washington Ledge.


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