OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire and top lawmakers labored for a final agreement Monday night that would end months of stagnation in the state Legislature.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said in an interview with The Associated Press that leaders and budget negotiators had agreed on the framework of a final deal Monday night. But Democratic Sen. Jim Kastama, who has been siding with Republicans in the latest talks, said the fine points of that broader agreement remained in flux.
“We want to make sure that the reforms that go into place actually make a difference,” Kastama said. Lawmakers declined to discuss specifics.
The special session is set to end Tuesday, and Monday’s flurry of meetings caps months of fruitless negotiations over how to close a roughly half-billion-dollar shortfall for the two-year budget cycle ending June 2013. A Republican-led coalition in the Senate will not take up the budget until lawmakers approve a series of policy changes in state government.
Gregoire spokesman Cory Curtis said the governor had offered a “go-home” proposal that addressed three issues that have kept lawmakers at odds: pensions, a balanced budget measure and altering health insurance benefits for public school employees.
Democrats hold power in the House and have been unwilling to embrace the GOP bills that passed the Senate Saturday, one that would require the state’s two-year budget to be in line with anticipated revenue over a four-year period and another to alter health insurance benefits for K-12 employees.
Brown, D-Spokane, said earlier Monday that she was frustrated by what she said was Republicans’ insistence that the House pass the reform bills approved by the Senate before they can start negotiating the budget.
“I feel like we’ve been put in a box that’s intended to drive us into another special session,” she said.
The 30-day special session is set to end at midnight Tuesday, but the coalition of Senate Republicans and three Democrats that passed a budget plan by a single vote last month is down a vote through the rest of the overtime session.
Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina was among the Democrats voting for the Republican budget last month. That budget proposal stalled in the House and lawmakers were forced into an overtime session.
Tom was in California on a college tour with his daughter — something he said they planned in January — and isn’t supposed to finish his travels until Wednesday. He said any agreement to break the logjam in the Legislature will have to be bipartisan, so his vote will not be crucial to final passage.
“It’s all going to be part of a package,” Tom said. “If there’s a package agreement, it’s going to be very bipartisan.”
The rest of the chamber’s 48 senators were all present or expected at the Capitol Monday. Among them was Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla, who is recovering from major surgery to remove a tumor from his abdomen.
Hewitt said that he thought it was important to be present in the Senate for votes on reform-related bills that Republicans have said must be part of any budget deal.
“I’m not here to do battle, but I’m here to finish up the task we started this year,” he said.
Hewitt says doctors removed a thymoma tumor in its entirety, and his prognosis is good, though he’s still in pain from the surgery.