‘Handshake agreement’ reached on state operating budget



Washington lawmakers reached a long-sought accord on a new state budget Thursday and hurried to schedule votes that would avert a widespread state government shutdown.

Legislative leaders hoped to give final approval of the measure before state employees leave work Friday, so that they would be certain their jobs would be available again on Monday morning. The $33.6 billion, two-year spending proposal was still unavailable for public review Thursday afternoon.

“The deal reached today makes it clear that state government will continue to operate,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference earlier in the day, flanked by lawmakers from both parties.

Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter, the top negotiator in the House, said he and Republican Sen. Andy Hill finalized the new spending plan Thursday morning and shook hands on an agreement. Budget negotiators said they were confident the measure would swiftly make it through the Legislature, although Hunter indicated lawmakers were simultaneously discussing a variety of peripheral issues.

“It’s a delicate agreement,” he said.

Lawmakers said the final plan puts an additional $ 1 billion toward the state’s basic education system in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that determined lawmakers weren’t adequately funding schools. They said tuition rates would be frozen for one year and would likely remain flat for the following year, although the Legislature left universities with more flexibility in that second year.

While overall spending in the budget would rise by 8 percent compared to the current two-year budget, K-12 education spending would rise more than 11 percent.

“I do think it’s a budget that has broad appeal,” Hill said. “Everybody is excited and glad to be done.”

Negotiators said the proposal includes compromises from both sides. The Senate had opposed new revenue this year, but the final budget includes changes to estate and phone taxes that raises money or prevents refunds from going out — at a total benefit of $200 million for government. The House, meanwhile, backed away from a variety of other revenue proposal while allowing cuts in some areas.

About $350 million of the operating budget is funded by transferring money from the capital budget, meaning there will be fewer dollars available to support public works projects. Hunter said the final budget includes cuts in social services that he didn’t like and changes in state employee health care to charge some workers who smoke $25 a month and charge $50 a month for workers having spouses on a state health care plan when they have a different plan available to them.

Much of state government would shut down — and more than 25,000 workers would be temporarily laid off — if the Legislature fails to approve the new budget before Monday, and political leaders believe it’s particularly important to finalize the plan before state employees leave work for the weekend.

Washington state has never had a government shutdown but the Legislature has worked close to the end of the fiscal period before. In 2001, lawmakers finished the budget on June 20; in 1991 then-Gov. Booth Gardner signed a budget just moments before midnight on June 30.

This year, a new Senate majority controlled by Republicans and two conservative Democrats pushed a no-tax message and policies that would overhaul government rules to aid businesses. Democrats who control the House and Gov. Jay Inslee have pressed for more tax revenue and opposed many of the Senate policy plans.

The Senate has talked about revisiting those policy matters next year, such as an overhaul to the state’s workers’ compensation system. Democrats have said the tax issues will also return again next session, since lawmakers will still need to add more money to the education system in the coming years.

“This is a good budget,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan. “However, it doesn’t address the underlying questions we need to answer before we can honestly say we’ve met our long-term commitment to education in our state.”