Budget games are taking center stage

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The Capitol Dome

So far, gamesmanship has trumped actual negotiations over a compromise between the Washington Senate and House on their budget proposals.

There's just a week until the session ends but little sign of progress. Republican and Democratic negotiators met on Wednesday, for instance, and the talks immediately broke down.

In the big picture, the House Democrats have a $38.8 billion budget proposal for the 2015-17 biennium, with $1.4 billion earmarked for the improvements in Grades K-3 ordered by the Washington Supreme Court. To pay for it, there’s $1.5 billion in new revenue with a capital gains tax, an increase in the business-and-occupation tax for service firms, and the closing of seven tax breaks.

The Senate Republicans’ $38 billion budget has $1.3 billion earmarked for the court-ordered work in Grades K-3 and $40 million in new revenue from letting 15 tax breaks expire.

The Senate Republicans' version of what happened Wednesday is this. They requested that the House Democrats pass the capital gains and B&O tax bills as well as the legislation for closing the seven tax breaks before the two sides begin negotiating. The GOP's rationale is that it does not believe that the House Democrats actually have the 50 votes to pass those bills, and, in the absence of such support, the Republican senators would not be negotiating against a solid Democratic position on the budget.

The GOP's lead negotiator Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, acknowledged Thursday that this year's Republican demand put the two parties in exactly opposite positions from where they stood in 2013, at the start of talks on a huge transportation budget package. The House Democrats had passed their transportation package then. But later that year, Republican senators could only marshal 13 votes for their own transportation proposal -- out of their 26 majority coalition members. That led to the House Democrats saying the GOP did not have a valid proposal to negotiate. (This year, 20 majority coalition members and seven minority Democrats finally approved a modified Senate transportation proposal, with the seven queasy Democrats essentially agreeing to support it to get talks with the House started.)

Hill said that the almost two-year delay on the transportation package talks demonstrates that each side does need to prove it has a majority of votes lined up for its negotiating stance.

The House Democrats' version of what happened Wednesday is different. The Republican negotiators told the Democrats that the Senate GOP members would never pass any Democratic tax bills under any scenario, but the Republicans still said the House Democrats must pass the tax bills anyway -- before any bargaining talks can begin. "That's absurd," said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, on Thursday.

Sullivan said the House Democrats, indeed, have 50 votes lined up to guarantee passage of their tax bills.

On Thursday, Republican leaders said the House Democrats are deliberately trying to push the negotiations into special sessions beyond the April 26 end of this session, as a way to gain leverage in the talks. The Legislature actually has until June 30 to pass a budget in time to avoid a partial government shutdown. In 2013, the budget was approved on June 27.

Hill said the majority of Democratic legislators live close to Olympia, so driving to Olympia for special session briefings and votes is relatively easy. Meanwhile, Republican legislators tend to live far from Olympia, especially Eastern Washingtonians who are several hours away. Consequently, a special session is a greater burden on the Senate’s Republicans than on the House’s Democratic representatives.

So, Hill said, Republican negotiators will be under greater pressure than their Democratic counterparts to reach a budget agreement.

And, he suggested, the public would likely blame the GOP rather than the Democrats if an impasse flirts with or leads to a partial state government shutdown. "There’s a belief,” Hill said, “that if you shut down the government, the Republicans will get the blame."

Until at least next Sunday's end of the session, there will be lots of positioning by both sides.


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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