Budget talks could get under way in Olympia

It's the time in a legislative session when much of the work gets done under a cone of silence.
Crosscut archive image.

Lawmakers continue to huddle behind closed doors at the capitol.

It's the time in a legislative session when much of the work gets done under a cone of silence.

Washington's 2013-2015 budget negotiations might begin this week.

The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-oriented Senate were in a holding pattern last week with their radically different proposed budgets — waiting to get ready for their behind-the-scenes negotiations to reach a compromise on a budget.

Last week, they weren't talking despite the House passing its proposed $34.5 billion budget on April 12, and the Senate passing its $33.21 billion plan several days earlier.

The reason is each side wants to see if the other can back up its position.

That means the Senate' Majority Coalition Caucus — 23 Republicans and two Democrats — wants the House Democrats to prove they can pass legislation to create $1.3 billion worth of 15 tax exemptions while extending the soon-to-expire beer and service-related business -and-occupation taxes. The logic:  Why waste bargaining chips on something that may not materialize anyway?

The House is following the same rationale. The Senate has to pass some policy bills to create a 3 percent college tuition reduction and to nail down other bills to shift money to support its budget proposal, which avoids removing tax exemptions or extending expiring taxes.

You can expect the minority Senate Democrats and the House's minority Republicans try to trip up the majorities in the two chambers, which would help their party allies going into the talks.

For example, the minority Senate Democrats and House majority Democrats have already challenged the constitutionality of shifting$166 million from timber sales on state Department of Natural Resources trust land to help pay for $1 billion worth of education improvements to meet a Washington Supreme Court order. That $166 million comes from a fund normally earmarked for school construction. Democrats say that violates the state constitution, and they have the lawyers to back their stance. Republicans say the shift is constitutional, and they have lawyers to back their positions. The state Attorney General's office does not have a formal opinion on the matter.

On the House side, the Democratic plan calls for pulling $575 million from the state's "rainy day fund," which requires a 60 percent majority — 59 actual votes — to accomplish. Democrats have 55 members in the House, meaning they will have to convince four Republicans to cross the aisle to keep the House budget intact before talks begin.

Both sides will be lucky to have their own budget proposals fully nailed down by April 28, the official end of the regular 105-day session.

That means the budget leaders of both parties likely won't enter the sometimes discombobulated cone of silence to begin their largely secret negotiations until a widely expected special session begins in May. If a special session is needed, it's likely to focus on tax exemptions, tax extensions, budget shifts and the $1 billion Senate and $1.3 billion House plans to meet the Supreme Court's education mandate. 


Another set of budget talks may or may not begin this week — the transportation budget.

The Democratic-controlled House has proposed an $8.4 billion transportation budget that includes a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase spread across four years. The Republican-oriented Senate's version is $8.7 billion with no tax increases.

The other deadlock between the two transportation budgets is a proposed new Interstate 5 bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland. The Columbia River Crossing is a $3.5 billion project to replace the current structure with a modern bridge, which would include a Vancouver-to-Portland light rail extension. Democrats like it. Republicans hate it.

The feds will foot most of the bill if the project begins soon with Oregon putting in $450 million and Washington adding another $450 million. Oregon has ponied up its $450 million. But Democrats and Republicans are fighting over that bridge and whether the Evergreen State will provide that $450 million -- creating another impasse in Olympia.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8