Session over; more to come - Locke orders extra session to get
under way May 12
Olympia, WA - The Legislature headed home late Sunday after 105 days,
unable to bridge a $2.6 billion budget gap.
Democrats and Republicans were locked in a partisan fight over cuts to health care, tax increases and public employees' pay that Gov. Gary Locke hopes can be resolved in a special session that begins May 12.
Locke said he will call lawmakers back into session in hopes of moving along a body that was short on big accomplishments and big on debates.
In fact, lawmakers leave town with an unfinished budget and a sizable list of bills Locke wants addressed in a one-week special session -- everything from anti-terrorism laws to issues dealing with education changes, gay rights, water law, prescription drugs, unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, shared leave for military service and even expanding the state Keno game.
"There's no reason these items can't be completed within a day or two," Locke said, suggesting that budget negotiators can stick around in the meantime to get agreements.
In the case of the unemployment and injured worker issues, Locke said he might call for a task force to help resolve the issues between business and labor.
Lawmakers' 15-week session did lead to a few major accomplishments, mainly a $4.2 billion transportation-tax package that included a 5-cent increase in the gas tax.
But legislators of both parties were not able to see beyond their party differences to bridge a $2.6 billion funding gap -- a gap swollen by rising medical costs and weak revenues.
"Both parties -- Democrat and Republican -- gave too much weight to special interests and too little to compromise and reality," complained Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, one of two Democrats who had defected to join Republican opposition to the House Democratic budget on Saturday night.
Schual-Berke said her own party moved away from her core values by endorsing a budget that cuts from health care while avoiding the repeal of tax breaks on country-club dues and taxes on luxury cars.
Yet softening some of the session's edgy partisanship was the news last week that Senate Majority Leader Jim West, R-Spokane, is in a battle for his life with cancer. In fact, West's planned surgery this week for colon cancer was one reason Locke chose May 12 -- he said that's when West felt he could return to work.
"I don't know that we're as far apart as people think," Senate budget negotiator Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, said midafternoon Sunday, sporting dark glasses as he basked in the unusually hot sun and waited to negotiate with House Democrats, who weren't in any bigger hurry than he was.
Until Democrats passed him the rest of their budget bills -- including changes to two voter-approved education initiatives and an expansion of the state-run Keno game --Rossi said there was no point in negotiating. He said he was waiting because he doesn't want to negotiate until each side's proposed spending level is locked into bills that have passed either the Senate or House.
The Senate's wait on the House reflected one of the session's yearlong themes, although it was equally true that each chamber often sat on the other's best work.
When it came to the budget, the House finally passed one --$23.2 billion for the general fund and another $1.4 billion for the health services account -- on Saturday night. It also narrowly approved about $320 million of new taxes and revenue increases, including a 50-cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes, a 5 percent raise in the cost of a bottle of liquor, adding the sales tax to candy and gum, and removing a tax exemption for insurers.
Democrats were still in their go-slow mode on other budget-related bills, including two that would reduce the state commitment to class-size reductions and teacher pay under citizen initiatives 728 and 732. Democrats also appeared to be giving up on Keno, which would have put $38 million into school programs that the Senate budget would cut, although Locke said he's been "going to bat" for it.
House Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, said Keno isn't worth voting on in his chamber because the Senate completely lacks support for it.
GTECH, the Rhode Island-based firm that runs the Washington lottery and has lobbied hard for the bill, stands to pick up at least $11 million in new revenues over the next three years if lawmakers go to Keno drawings every four or five minutes. But several former governors and even the state PTA have come out against the plan, which is considered the mildest gambling-expansion in the works this year.
Rossi said he prefers taking a break for a few days before starting talks with his House counterparts. Sharing that sentiment were House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, although Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, argued against taking a break.
"I'd like to see my kids, my wife, pay some bills and some other things," Rossi said.
The long session obviously wore out many lawmakers, and some senators openly mocked House Democrats for their long struggle to produce a budget that, in the end, split their members in a vocal internal fight -- mainly on whether to raise taxes.
"It took them 104 days to agree with themselves," Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, joked in passing.
Sunday's languor gave way to some action, including House approval of a compromise capital-spending budget of roughly $2.48 billion.
Included is $500,000 for irrigation and grass at Olympia's Heritage Park, $17.35 million for a new humanities complex at South Puget Sound Community College, $14.1 million for The Evergreen State College's Evans library renovation (far less than the college sought), $400,000 for a Yelm community center, $20,000 for a Rainier museum roof, $102,175 to renovate a Tumwater site for the Thurston County Boys and Girls Club, and $33,900 for the Bigelow House Preservation Association, $100,000 for the Squaxin Island tribal museum, $300,000 for Rainier Vista Community Park development in Lacey, $275,000 for Wonderwood Park in Lacey, and $410,279 for Lacey's purchase of railroad trail land.
To pay for all the projects, the state will have to amend its limit on debt, which is now going to be 8.5 percent of general fund revenues, said Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, the top Republican on capital-budget issues. But all eight South Sound representatives, four Democrats and four Republicans, voted for the budget and debt-limit bills.
The Senate and House won't pass a final capital budget until the operations budget is approved, but few changes in projects lists are expected, said House Capital Budget Committee Chairman Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish.
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