Politics & Government

State budget negotiations underway, or are they? Lawmakers disagree

One-third of the way through an overtime session to decide a state budget, leaders in the Legislature can’t seem to agree about whether or not they’re actually negotiating yet.

Democrats who control the state House said Thursday that negotiations on a new two-year operating budget haven’t really begun. Instead, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said House and Senate leaders are meeting for budget “briefings,” in which they compare notes on the differences between their two budget proposals — a process Sullivan said should have begun three weeks ago.

But speaking with reporters the same day, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said, “I think it’s a little better than that.”

“There have been offers that have gone back and forth,” Schoesler said. “There’s information being exchanged, discussing, ‘how did you come to a position ... and ‘how did you get to that level? What was your thought process?’ ”

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, the Republican caucus chairwoman, called the meetings between House and Senate leaders “an educational process.” Both she and Schoesler said that budget negotiators are working through smaller details of the budget in the absence of consensus on larger items, such as whether to raise taxes.

“If they can’t solve the big stuff, they’re going through details, which takes time,” Schoesler said. “So when the big items move, it’s ready to go.”

Lawmakers were unable to finalize a new two-year state budget in their regular 105-day legislative session. They began a 30-day special session April 29.

If lawmakers can’t reach a deal by May 28, the end of the 30-day special session, Gov. Jay Inslee may have to call another special session for them to continue negotiations.

That the two sides are meeting at all is an improvement over last month, when negotiations broke down over House Democrats’ refusal to vote on their proposed tax measures.

The House’s proposed $39 billion budget relies on about $1.5 billion in new revenue that would come from a new capital gains tax, an increase in taxes on service businesses and the elimination of several tax breaks.

Senate Republicans said they wouldn’t resume budget talks until the House passed those tax bills. House leaders, meanwhile, said they wouldn’t make their members take an unpopular vote on tax increases that Senate Republicans said they won’t allow in the final budget.

The two sides remain at odds not only on tax increases, but also on spending on school employee compensation.

The proposed House budget would spend about $350 million more than the Senate budget to give K-12 school employees larger pay increases and improve their health benefits. The House budget would also spend more to hire high school guidance counselors than the Senate spending plan.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, on Thursday called K-12 school funding “the biggest area of disagreement” between the House and Senate budgets.

“A lot of legislators like to say they support education, but the question is, how can you support education without supporting the educators?” Chopp said.

“You really have to support education by supporting the educators as well, because they’re doing the job that we expect them to do,” Chopp said.

Last year, the state Supreme Court held the state in contempt over lawmakers’ failure to come up with a long-term school funding plan in the education funding lawsuit known as McCleary. The court promised unspecified sanctions if lawmakers don’t do more this year.

Both the House and Senate budgets would invest $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion in meeting requirements of the McCleary decision, including paying for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and expanding all-day kindergarten.

Lawmakers are already starting to worry that they’ll overstay their welcome in Olympia — and that they might not have places to stay in town if they do.

A second special session would overlap with the dates for the U.S. Open, the golf championship that is being held at Chambers Bay in University Place June 15-21. An recent analysis by Senate staff found that some hotels in the Olympia area are already booked for the week of the golf event, while others are charging far above their normal rates.

“I don’t think it would be fun to camp out in the capital with motel rooms not available here,” said Parlette, the Senate Republican caucus chairwoman. “So there’s extra incentives for us to get all this done.”