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News / Northwest

Gregoire: Special session needed

Governor insists lawmakers have a deal in place before regular one ends Thursday

The Columbian
Published: March 7, 2012, 4:00pm

OLYMPIA Gov. Chris Gregoire acknowledged Wednesday that a special legislative session will be needed to pass a state budget, but insisted that lawmakers have a deal before midnight Thursday.

Gregoire said that at this point, it’s logistically and procedurally impossible to pass a budget before the regular 60-day session ends Thursday. But she said she doesn’t want a long, drawn-out extended session and wants a plan in place before she officially calls for a special session.

“The minute I say special session, they’ll go to sleep. They’ll stop working,” she said. “The public expects more. The public expects them to work every last minute to get the job done.”

Gregoire met with Republican and Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate earlier Wednesday, and she said she asked them to come back later in the day or Thursday with some ideas.

“I am not going to let the pressure off,” Gregoire said. “They can’t procedurally get done by midnight tomorrow night, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have an agreement.”

Majority Democrats have been forced to negotiate with Senate Republicans, who were able to pass their own budget plan off the Senate floor last weekend with the help of three conservative Democrats.

The Republicans’ plan makes deeper cuts to state programs than either House or Senate Democrats’ original plans do, especially in health and human services programs. It also proposes $74 million in cuts to schools and colleges.

Republicans were able to advance their budget using a rarely used procedure known as a “Ninth Order,” which allows any bill to be pulled to the floor even those that haven’t had a public hearing. That budget passed early Saturday on a 25-24 vote. The plan, as passed, has no chance of getting past the House, where Democrats hold a 56-42 majority.

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Sen. Ed Murray, the Senate Democrats’ lead budget writer, said earlier in the day that the only chance of a budget passing Thursday is based on Republicans’ “willingness to compromise.”

“I haven’t seen a willingness for them to move toward us,” he said. “Whether we get done on Thursday or we get done in special session, this isn’t going to be easy.”

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield, who wrote the GOP budget plan, said that once lawmakers can agree on how big the budget should be, “we’re totally open on how you spend that money.”

Lawmakers are looking to close a budget gap of about $500 million through the end of the two-year budget cycle ending June 2013. Because Gregoire wants reserves of at least $500 million dollars, lawmakers are addressing a $1 billion problem.

Republicans complained Wednesday that no discussions between Senate Republicans and House Democrats have taken place. Zarelli said he believes Democrats are still looking for a 25th vote to pass their own budget in the Senate, and “barring that, then maybe they will start talking with us in special session.”

In their proposal, Senate Democrats relied in part on a $330 million delay in payments to school districts to help balance the budget, a move Republicans decried because it kicks the obligation into the next budget cycle. House Democrats had proposed a similar move.

Republicans have said that idea is a non-starter for them, but House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he believed “it’s an important piece of the budget.” Murray said he has sent Republicans a proposal that is “a partial move” on that issue but hasn’t heard back.

Democrats, in turn, don’t like the Republicans’ plan to not pay into the state retirement plans next year. Contributions would resume in 2014.

“There’s still sort of a sticking point,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “They don’t want to delay the schools payment. We don’t want to skip a pension payment.”

Gregoire said leaders need to get past these dueling issues before they can make meaningful progress on the budget.

“Inside the budget, I am convinced that there is absolute means to reach an agreement,” she said. “But they can’t reach an agreement until we resolve this impasse. More cuts don’t work. So they’ve got to come up with a third alternative.”