June 23rd seemed like a perfectly good time to book a wedding in the Capitol Rotunda.
But a few dozen lobbyists were among the invited guests when young Olympia residents Gabriella Carty and Steve Christenson got married there on Sunday.
While the couple was in the Rotunda exchanging vows, House and Senate leaders were behind closed doors haggling over the state's 2013-2015 operating budget. “We were expecting a private ceremony until four days ago," lamented the future Mrs. Christensen. "We'll get through it,” added her husband-to-be. “Bumps and all."
The Legislature’s regular session ended April 28. Sunday was the 56th day of special session talks. "I never expected it to go so long,” said Sen. Paull Shin. (The Shoreline Democrat, pictured below, missed his 50th wedding anniversary dinner because of the budget stalemate.)
House Democrats and the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus stayed deadlocked through the weekend. As a result, layoff warnings are scheduled to go out to a significant number of state employees today. The actual layoffs won’t go into effect until July 1. That’s when the 2013-2015 budget biennium begins, and the state faces a partial shutdown unless lawmakers can agree on a budget. (Here's an overview of the shutdown plan. )
"Still working. Still moving. Still not at a stalemate," insisted Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and lead Senate budget negotiator, on Sunday.
The Senate majority coalition leaders portrayed a narrower gap between Senate and House operating budget proposals than did their counterparts in the House. Whoever you believe, talks appear to be going slowly with lots of back and forth between the two sides, who at times appear to be on different wavelengths.
Assuming agreement on an operating budget finally emerges, it will take a couple days to get the exact legislation mapped out and passed. Once the operating budget is nailed down, the state's capital and transportation budgets will move to the front burner. Lawmakers are holding parallel talks on transportation and capital budgets in hopes that those budgets will be ready for a vote soon after the operating budget impasse is resolved.
About that operating budget, several issues remain in play.
The biggest outstanding item is the repeal of the landline phone tax exemption. The House Democrats fear that a cellular company or another telecommunications interest will file a lawsuit seeking the landline exemptions. A successful lawsuit in 2014 could lead to a refund of about $430 million in fiscal 2015, plus the loss of about $430 million in 2015-2017 revenue and another $673 million in 2017-2019.
"There's no question that a lawsuit would happen imminently," said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and one of the House's budget negotiators.
Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, downplayed the urgency. But he said his side is willing to pass the landline measure, which has bipartisan support in the House and backing from various business interests, if the House approves a Senate bill that would lower the age (from 55 to 40) at which workers can collect potential lump settlements on compensation claims.
Carlyle and several other House budget negotiators (Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Convington, and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina,among them) see the situation this way:
The Senate wants to pass several education and workers comp reform bills, drastically trim health and social service spending and avoid hikes in college tuition. The House wants to close six tax exemptions (that could generate $208 million in school-related revenue), make much smaller cuts to social services and limit college tuition increases to three percent. And both sides are still arguing over the effectiveness of each other’s education spending plans and budget accounting.
"Virtually everything is legitimately on the table," Carlyle said.
Both sides agree that a breakthrough on one issue might have a domino effect on the others. But they contend that the situation is too complicated to just split the differences down the middle or simply swap Senate reform bills for House tax exemption closures.
Rodney Tom contended that House measures keep shortchanging necessary efforts to boost spending so that lawmakers can pay for the educational improvements ordered by the State Supreme Court. Democrats have countered that the Senate's plan skips some Supreme Court requirements and is not financially solid.
The Senate's last public 2013-2015 operating budget proposal called for spending $33.2 billion; the House's called for $33.5 billion.
Meanwhile, in the background is Gov. Jay Inslee’s call to pass a transportation revenue package this year. The governor has said he will keep the Legislature in session until a transportation package makes it through.
The Senate majority coalition has been lukewarm about passing a transportation revenue package this year. The coalition doesn’t like the gas tax increase in the current package, and many of its members don't want to spend $450 million to replace the Columbia River Bridge at Vancouver. That $450 million is Washington’s share of the cost. Without that commitment, Oregon and the feds will not pony up the rest of the $3.5 billion price tag. (Democrats want the Vancouver-Portland bridge replaced. )
So far, the Senate majority coalition has a 25-24-vote advantage on transportation spending and strict caucus discipline in opposing the transportation package. But that loyalty might be shaken.
Included in the transportation is money to fund an extension of State Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma, a big priority for Pierce County's government and business interests. Three members of the Senate majority coalition represent Pierce County. That trio, Sens. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, Randi Becker, R-Eatonvile, and Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County, are being forced to choose between their caucus and their constituents.