Legislature: Time to play the adult game of chicken

Lawmakers are clearly headed into a special session, where pressure to make budget decisions will increase.
Crosscut archive image.

The dome at the Washington State Capitol

Lawmakers are clearly headed into a special session, where pressure to make budget decisions will increase.

Republican leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee began reciting the same mantra Wednesday: All budget and legislative differences between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-oriented Senate will be resolved by Sunday, which is the end of the 105-day legislative session.

Nobody believed them. Not even themselves.

"We'd have to draw to an inside straight to get this done by Sunday night," Inslee conceded.

"I'm not a gambling man. I wouldn't bet on it,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

"I'm concerned we'll be further apart (on Sunday) than closer," said House Republican budget chief Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia.

So a 30-day special session is assured. However, Inslee has declined to say whether he will call for it to begin Monday or to start after a short break.

Odds are that the special session to accommodate the House-Senate budget talks will go the full 30 days.

That's because the House Democrats and the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus have been playing "chicken" for the past 103 days. Neither side has publicly budged from a "my-way-or-the-highway" stance on all budget and non-budget bills that they disagree on. Preliminary negotiations have just begun.

It's been legislative machismo on steroids. It's likely that only the embarrassment from having no compromise in this duel by the end of May will pressure the two sides to move toward the middle.

"People are going down multiple tracks, and now these tracks are coming together," Inslee said.

The gulf between the two sides is huge.

The House proposes a $34.33 billion operating budget for 2013-2015. The Senate wants a $33.21 billion budget.

The House wants to repeal 11 tax exemptions and extend a business-and-occupations tax for service firms to raise $1.169 billion to pay for education improvement called for by a Washington Supreme Court ruling. The Senate says that's a deal breaker — every single piece of it. The Senate contends the Supreme Court improvements can be met with $1 billion and with no new revenue. The House replies that the Senate lives in a financial fantasy.

The Senate wants to dramatically cut social and health services to make the budget's parts fit together. The House wants to trim those services only a little.

Each side claims that the other's budget proposal is based on bogus assumptions that cannot materialize.

The House budget depends on removing $575 million from the state's emergency-related "rainy day fund."  The accounting requires approval of 60 percent of the House — 59 votes out of 98. The House Democrats number 55, meaning they have to convince four Republicans to cross the aisle from a caucus that has extremely strong party discipline. And the Republican caucus is salivating at the chance to trip up the more powerful Dems, whom the House GOP constantly portrays as bullies.

Also, Senate Majority Coalition Caucus leaders say that House rainy-day-fund vote must occur prior to serious negotiations so the House Democrats can prove they can back up their budget. House Democrat leaders say they will negotiate first, and then conduct a House rainy-day-fund-transfer vote. 

The Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus budget depends on a $166 million shift from a school construction fund to an operational fund. Democrats say that move is unconstitutional. Republicans say it’s perfectly legal. Each side has attorneys citing different sentences in the Washington Constitution. Also, the Majority Coalition Caucus wants to use $321 million in teacher cost-of-living raises to fund other school improvements in its $1 billion education fix-it plan. Democrats counter that the $321 million is make-believe money from a cache that is currently not funded. The GOP replies that the Dems have perhaps been doing too much personal research into Initiative 502, the marijuana legalization measure.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, noted that the 30-18 Senate approval of the $33.21 billion dropped to 25-23 when the bill containing the $166 million and $321 million shifts was voted upon. Several Democrats crossed party lines on the 30-18 budget vote due to various agreements they felt honor-bound to keep. But the 25-23 vote on the shifts needed to implement that same Senate budget was almost along party lines.

On the other hand, the 50-47 House vote on most of that chamber's tax measures came with five Democrats joining the Republicans against it. Those numbers could be interpreted in a couple ways. The Democratic hold on the House budget is shaky. Or five Democrats were given wiggle room to help them in the next election in their mixed conservative-liberal districts — since 50 is the magic number to pass a measure.

The upcoming closed-door talks will involve more than the budget.

Inslee argues that several stalled or dead bills should return to play in the upcoming negotiations. These include the DREAM Act to give children of undocumented immigrants a chance to apply for state scholarships to college, the Reproductive Parity Act addressing abortion insurance, a transportation budget-and-projects package and gun bills. Republicans oppose these bills, or at least the Democratic versions of them.

The House Democrats could not get a guns-background-checks bill out of their chamber, mustering only 47 promised votes, which caused them not to risk a floor vote. "To leave this session without dealing with gun violence is a sad commentary," Inslee said.

Republican leaders say the DREAM Act, Reproductive Parity Act and any revival of a gun-background-checks bill are not budget measures, and should not be considered in the budget negotiations. 

Meanwhile, Republican and Majority Coalition Caucus leaders consider several workers compensation reform and education reform bills, which the House Democrats have stopped, as parts of the budget. Any budget compromise must include the House passing those bills, they said. "Reform has to go with funding," said Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

Republican leaders grumbled that Inslee has not been pushing hard for compromises between the two sides up to this point, comparing him unfavorably to former Gov. Chris Gregoire. She became very active in budget compromises after special sessions began.

Inslee said: "I was elected governor, not dictator, and I understand the distinction."

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


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


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