Lawmakers reach tentative budget deal

Plan aimed at closing $5B shortfall features ‘no surprises’

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photoSen. Joe Zarelli

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers reached a tentative agreement on a new state budget Monday and prepared to hurriedly approve the spending plan before their overtime session in Olympia comes to an end.

Leaders in the Senate and House said they won’t unveil specifics of the compromise until today and hope to pass it through both chambers by Wednesday. That will leave many lawmakers and the public with a chance to briefly review the massive plan that seeks to close the state’s $5 billion budget shortfall.

Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat from Seattle who served as one of the lead negotiators, noted that lawmakers have already had many previous budget hearings and that the new deal offers nothing new.

“The public has seen every single item in this budget,” Murray said. “There are no surprises.”

House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt said one day probably wasn’t enough time for the public to fully assess the plan. But he wasn’t going to stand in the way of its passage and force lawmakers to remain in Olympia longer.

The Legislature wasn’t able to reach a deal on the spending plan when its regular session ended a month ago, leading Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire to call them back for 30 days of overtime. Negotiators have been grappling over a series of challenging choices: whether to cut pay for teachers, how to save money in higher education and which social programs could do with less money.

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield, said he was pleased that all sides worked together in the negotiations.

“I’m sure there are some things where people felt like they won and other things where they felt like they were marginalized,” Zarelli said. “Everybody’s going to have their pluses and their minuses.”

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the budget came together in a series of meetings that went late into the night. It was a daunting task, as all sides tried to cut billions in spending without causing too much damage, he said.

“We had a couple of moments where things were a little testy,” Hunter said.

Of all the parties involved, House Republicans emerged as least supportive of the plan. DeBolt said many of his members were concerned by some of the cuts to school spending — although he didn’t offer specifics on the compromise.

“I don’t see them getting a lot of votes on it,” DeBolt said. But House Republicans did have input on the plan and have agreed not to stand in the way of a vote, he said.

The budget agreement comes just hours after leaders announced a crucial deal on how to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system. That plan is also being ushered through the Legislature quickly, easily passing the House on Monday afternoon.

There’s still at least one major hurdle left for lawmakers to clear before Wednesday: They are still negotiating a deal that would lower the state’s debt limit.