Local lawmakers point fingers over impasse

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Lawmakers resigned to second special session.

Several legislators from Southwest Washington agreed on one thing Monday: it's likely the Legislature will require double overtime to pass a state operating budget. They didn't agree, however, on who's responsible for the gridlock.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, sees it this way:

"We started off with a very compromised budget to begin with," said Rivers. "The Democratic House budget started off so far to the left that they had a lot of room to move."

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said the Democrat-controlled House has

made an honest effort to meet the Republican-controlled Senate in the middle. House Democrats have scaled back a previous plan to close several tax loopholes, and they've reduced the overall size of their budget plan.

Meanwhile, the fiscally conservative Majority Coalition in the Senate is still trying to advance policy bills, and it passed a budget proposal over the weekend that didn't earn one Democratic vote outside of the conservative coalition, Moeller said.

"I think that shows exactly what they're up to as far as governing," he said.

State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said that from her perspective, Democrats have given a lot and Republicans haven't budged much.

"I think all we can do is continue to reach out and hope we can keep the discussions and negotiations continued," Cleveland said.

Rivers said the majority coalition in the Senate also hopes the Legislature agrees to a few reforms it passed over the weekend, including one that would make "business-friendly" changes to the state's workers' compensation system, Rivers said.

"Really, what we're looking for is some reforms, and so far the governor and others, they're just not there yet," she said.

That wasn't the only sticking point mentioned by Clark County legislators. State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said his constituents don't want him to cave to a Democratic operating budget that raises more money through taxes.

"That's really the bottom line," Harris said.

One of Cleveland's sticking points, she said, is protecting social services.

"I will not allow there to be cuts to health care or social service programs that hurt those in our community who can least afford it," she said. Cleveland, who has a health policy background, said she's seen first-hand how those cuts hurt the community. "It's not an answer to me that we cut health care and social service programs to fund education. It doesn't make sense."

The Senate is controlled by a group of 23 Republicans and two maverick Democrats, and their thin majority allows them to run the 49-member body. That conservative coalition has added a new challenge to budget negotiations with the Democratic House, Harris said.

"Now we do actually have a contrasting voice in the Senate, and this is tough," Harris said.

As legislators continue to debate the budget, several of them have pointed out a looming deadline. The state's fiscal biennium ends June 30, so lawmakers must have some sort of spending plan in place by July 1.

Moeller said during his time as a legislator, he's never seen lawmakers come this close to a government shutdown. Moeller, first elected to the House in 2002, said it seems as if "the dysfunctions of Washington, D.C., have been imported to Washington state. …Usually cooler heads prevail in the Senate and we're able to reach a compromise."

Harris and Rivers said Washingtonians shouldn't worry that budget negotiations will drag on that long.

"I don't think there's anybody that wants to shut this place down," Harris said. "We do not want that to happen. … We have two budgets on the floor, and we need to get this done."


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.