Gov. Jay Inslee to lawmakers: Finish budget or kiss bills goodbye

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a press conference Monday, March 7, 2016, in Olympia, Washington.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a press conference Monday, March 7, 2016, in Olympia, Washington. The Associated Press

Three days before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee said lawmakers aren’t making enough progress toward a budget deal, and he warned he will start vetoing bills if they don’t move faster.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference Monday, Inslee said he will block legislation approved by the Legislature if an agreement on a 2016 supplemental budget isn’t reached soon. He called the veto threat “a deadline I think could be useful (for lawmakers) to focus their attentions on their job.”

“Although they made a little progress this weekend, they are way, way short of a pace that they need to obtain if they’re going to get a budget deal to my desk by midnight Thursday,” Inslee said. “So they need to pick up that pace substantially, and I made that clear to them.”

The Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House remain apart on the supplemental budget, which will make adjustments to the $38.2 billion spending plan they approved last year. Earlier this year, Democrats in the House proposed about $400 million more in spending than Republican leaders in the state Senate.

Inslee declined to discuss specifics about the status of the negotiations Monday, and legislative leaders in the House and Senate were similarly vague.

“We’re not as far along as we’d like to be,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. He said he’s hopeful lawmakers can reach an agreement “sooner rather than later.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to end their current 60-day session Thursday. If they don’t approve a budget by then, Inslee’s office said the governor will convene a special session starting Friday for them to complete their work.

The governor wasn’t specific about when he would start vetoing legislation if lawmakers fail to reach a budget deal, but he said about 35 bills are sitting on his desk awaiting his signature, and he expects the Legislature to send him “hundreds more” this week.

In Washington state, bills approved by both chambers of the Legislature don’t need a governor’s signature to become law. However, governors can veto legislation to send it back to the Legislature.

“A veto seems to be a vehicle that would be much more appropriate here,” Inslee said Monday. “I’m trying to focus legislators’ minds on their first priority, and that is to produce a budget on time.”

Inslee has been meeting with lawmakers to discuss what they need to reach an agreement, a spokeswoman said.

The governor has until Thursday at 11:59 p.m. to decide whether to veto the bills that came to his desk prior to this week. On Friday, they automatically become law.

For bills the Legislature approves this week, the governor has 20 days to decide whether to veto them.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said Inslee’s threat to veto legislation won’t substantially change House leaders’ approach to budget negotiations.

“We’re just working in good faith to get a budget that represents our values,” Chopp said Monday. He said priorities for House Democrats include increasing funding for mental health services and programs for homeless youth.

“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, which is exchanging offers,” Chopp said.

Last year, lawmakers required three special sessions to finish a two-year operating budget, setting a record for the most days in session in a single year. But Inslee didn’t issue a public threat to block legislation during those prolonged negotiations.

This year, however, lawmakers and statewide officials face additional pressure to leave Olympia in time to raise money for the November elections. State officials, including legislators and Inslee, are prohibited from raising money for their campaigns while the Legislature is in session.

Inslee faces a Republican challenger, Bill Bryant, in the November election.

A spokeswoman for Inslee’s office, Jaime Smith, declined to comment on whether election-year politics played a role in the governor issuing an ultimatum to lawmakers Monday.

“I think it’s clear their No. 1 job as a Legislature is to approve a budget,” Smith said. “Getting that completed by Thursday is something the people of Washington state expect.”

Schoesler, the Senate majority leader, said he wouldn’t discuss points of contention in the budget, saying he didn’t want to negotiate in the media.

As far as Inslee’s threat to start vetoing legislation, Schoesler said it could end up hurting policies favored by the Democratic governor.

“I hope he doesn’t mind losing the bills he likes,” Schoesler said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1