Legislative leaders reach budget deal

By John Stang
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The Washington State Capitol

By John Stang

Republicans and Democrats have a handshake deal on the broad strokes of the state government’s main 2015-2017 budget.

But the details remain a mystery. In fact, it appears a lot of those details still have to be hashed out.

On Saturday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders met with the press in a united front to say that a deal has been made for a roughly $38 billion biennial budget. That will likely be signed into law on Tuesday, heading off Wednesday’s looming partial shutdown of state government. The new state fiscal biennium of 2015-2017 officially begins Wednesday.

With Inslee mediating, legislative leaders reached a broad-strokes deal about 1 a.m. Saturday.

“This consensus delivers to Washingtonians a good, solid bipartisan budget,” Inslee said.

But Inslee and the two sides' legislative leaders would not answer several questions about specifics in the $38 billion tentative budget, indicating “hundreds of details” still have to be worked out. The earliest that budget could go to votes of the full Senate and full House would be Monday evening, said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, one of the House Democrats’ negotiators.

Details of the budget are expected to be nailed down and made public either Sunday or Monday.

So far, it is known that the budget agreement would provide $1.3 billion toward reducing teacher-student ratios in Grades K-3 ordered by the Washington Supreme Court in 2012. On Saturday, the legislative leaders could not say whether that appropriation would be sufficient to head off the Supreme Court’s threat of yet-to-be-determined sanctions if insufficient progress is made in this session toward meeting the 2012 ruling. The Legislature has dragged its feet in the past on complying with that ruling.

The budget will fully fund a teachers' cost-of-living raise in 2015-2017, a measure that has been put on a back burner since 2008. The new budget includes an unspecified amount of money for additional teacher compensations. And the budget would fully fund collective bargaining agreements with state employees and contract home-care workers. The GOP originally wanted to trim those already-negotiated agreements.

A big unanswered question is how much the 2015-2017 budget will reduce state college tuition and where will that money come from. Inslee and the legislative leaders declined to answer those questions Saturday. Originally, the Republicans wanted to reduce all state college tuitions by 25 percent, which would cost $354 million in the new biennium. Meanwhile, Democrats originally wanted to freeze tuitions, arguing that the GOP did not identify a source of money to reduce tuitions.

On Saturday, all that could be confirmed is that tuition will be reduced by an unidentified amount.

Also, several tax breaks will be closed and some existing tax exemptions will be extended — with the result being an unidentified amount on net revenue gain. Again, all parties declined to say which tax breaks are involved.

The leaders wouldn't say how the Legislature plans to do to deal with Initiative 1351, which orders dramatic improvements in teacher-student ratios in Grades 4-12. The parties both want to avoid implementation of the initiative because of its $2 billion-per-biennium expense.

Other loose ends are whether the Legislature will pass a capital budget for 2015-2017 and whether it will pass a 16-year, $15 billion transportation projects package. Theoretically, the Legislature could work on these two items beyond Tuesday. The question is whether the Legislature is willing to do so.

The transportation package has been hung up on a Republican idea of inserting language that would transfer $700 million in transit and multi-modal money to roads if Inslee installs low carbon-fuel standards in the next eight years. That would essentially forbid Inslee from tackling that measure if he is elected to a second term, as well as forbidding his successor from addressing it for a few years. Inslee proposes a three-year moratorium on installing low-carbon fuel standards.

This is the second straight time that the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate took until three days prior to a partial government shutdown to reach a main biennial budget agreement. It took until June 27, 2013, to get a handshake agreement on the 2013-2015 budget. And this year, it took until June 27 to get a similar deal on the 2015-2017 agreement. Both times, one factor appeared to be the Republicans' determined – even hardcore -- stance against raising any taxes or closing any tax breaks, agreeing reluctantly to do so in a few cases late in each negotiating process. However, in the GOP viewpoint, the Democrats have depended too much on taxes to solve problems.

Inslee said: “All of us have struggled over the dynamic differences in divided government. … All of us share the frustrations in taking this long.”

This story was originally posted on June 27.


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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