OLYMPIA — The Washington Legislature started a 30-day special session Monday to address the still unresolved two-year state budget that must comply with a state Supreme Court order on education funding.
Gov. Jay Inslee issued the official special session proclamation a day after the 105-day regular session ended with little fanfare. Most lawmakers left the Capitol on Friday and there were just a few people on hand for Sunday’s adjournment.
Most of the Legislature’s 147 members are back in their home districts this week, with just budget negotiators at the Capitol. So far, there has been no progress on negotiating the overall budget, but a group of bipartisan lawmakers have been meeting separately to discuss the education funding piece of the budget.
The current two-year budget expires on June 30, which means the 2017-2019 budget must be signed by the governor by then or else the state risks a partial government shutdown. Within that budget, Washington lawmakers must also comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must meet the state’s constitutional requirement to fully fund the state’s basic education system. The court has said that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018, to do that, but that the details — including funding — must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.
Among the differences between the budget proposals put forth by both chambers is how they address the local property tax levies. School districts currently pay a big chunk of teacher salaries with those levies, and the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for the salaries.
Unlike the Senate plan, which would replace local school levies with a statewide uniform property tax rate earmarked for schools, the House plan would lower the local levy rate, but not eliminate the local levies completely. The two-year plan put forth by the House also seeks about $3 billion in taxes that the full chamber has not voted on, including a new capital gains tax.
Republicans have said they can’t negotiate the overall budget until House Democrats pass that revenue out of their chamber. Both chambers passed their respective underlying spending plans last month, but both sides have been accusing the other of not passing all of the bills needed to balance out their proposals.
Republican Sen. John Braun, the key budget writer in the Senate, said that budget meetings within his caucus are occurring, as are meetings with nonpartisan staff to discuss the differences between the two budgets. He also noted that the bipartisan meetings on the education portion of the budget are taking place three times a week, twice a day.
Over the objections of Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans brought a few of the tax bills to the floor to the floor Friday evening to force a vote on the issue. The measures unanimously failed.
On Wednesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee is holding a hearing on a Republican version of the overall House tax proposal. Braun said that while he doesn’t anticipate the Senate taking another floor vote on the taxes, the point of the hearing is to counter Democrats’ assertions that if they passed their tax bills out of their own chamber they would just languish in the Senate.
“We’re looking for ways to work through the stalemate,” Braun said.
Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said that the very fact some of the same negotiators are meeting regularly to talk about the education component shows that lawmakers could be also be talking about the broader budget.
Sullivan said that both sides are going to have to compromise, but they need to have fuller budget discussions so that they can ultimate find a solution.
“The sooner we do that, the better,” he said.