Without Budget Deal, Lawmakers Prepare for Special Session

And no one’s surprised.

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are bound for a special session as House Democrats and Senate Republicans struggle to end an impasse blocking negotiations on a new state budget that will amply fund the public school system.

House and Senate leaders said they expect legislative work will wrap up Friday and most members head home rather than stick around for the formal end of the 105-day session Sunday. They said they anticipate Gov. Jay Inslee will call them back into session Monday.

On Thursday, leaders of the dueling caucuses continued blaming each other for the lack of progress thus far in reaching agreement on a new two-year operating budget that meets the Supreme Court mandate for public school funding.

House Democrats said they’ve repeatedly tried to get formal talks going ever since they passed their $44.6 billion budget proposal but have been turned down by Senate Republicans.

“Somebody needs to be the adult in the room and says let’s just get together, let’s figure out a budget that supports the state of Washington and the people who live here, and get our work done,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington at a press conference. “That’s what we’re calling for and have been.”

Senate Republicans, who’ve passed their own $43.3 billion spending plan, contend the House budget relies on a $3 billion tax package that Democrats haven’t passed.

They describe those as “ghost dollars” and don’t want to negotiate unless and until the tax bill is approved.

Republican senators also want to hold off until a bipartisan group of lawmakers finishes piecing together a plan to satisfy the school funding mandate in the McCleary case. Whatever emerges will dictate decisions throughout the remainder of the state budget, Republicans said.

“It’s not about stonewalling,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “Until you have that done, finalizing the rest is difficult.”

The approach further frustrates Democrats.

“If we’re waiting to do the rest of the budget after we get done with the McCleary solution, we are going to be here an awful long time,” Sullivan said.

Inslee said he would meet with Republican leaders Thursday and encourage them to come to the negotiation table.

“This is a challenge, I recognize that,” he said. “Everyone knows both sides are going to have to make hard compromises. It ought to start now rather than June.”

This will be the fourth time in Inslee’s tenure and 26th time since 1980 that legislators could not finish without at least one extra session. It’s likely one won’t be enough given the looming challenges.

Lawmakers took until June to write new budgets in 2013 and again in 2015. Both times they reached deals barely in time to avoid a partial shutdown of state government. The 2015 session set a record as it lasted 176 days and spanned three special sessions.

Going overtime isn’t a surprise to most lawmakers.

“It’s a sign our state is getting bigger and we’ve got big issues to deal with,” said Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell. “And it’s divided government.”

Meanwhile, Thursday did see lawmakers reach agreement on a new two-year, $8.51 billion state transportation budget. The House passed it on an 82-14 vote and it awaits final action in the Senate.

It uses money from the existing gas tax and assorted vehicle fees to pay for ongoing maintenance of roads, new studies, and day-to-day operations of the Washington State Patrol, Washington State Ferries and the departments of Licensing and Transportation.

A complete list of projects can be found online at www.fiscal.wa.gov.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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