Now Everybody Agrees – There’s a Budget Deal!
UPDATED 6 a.m. June 28.
OLYMPIA, June 27.—Now everybody agrees – there’s a budget deal, all right. At 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee strode into the conference room at his office on the second floor of the state Capitol and declared that lawmakers finally have liftoff.
And because he was followed by all the players on every side – Democrats, Republicans, senators, representatives – you finally get the idea there is no disagreement about the agreement.
If passed by the Legislature, the $33.6 billion budget deal will avert the shutdown of state government that looms on Monday if no budget is passed. Inslee said the goal is for lawmakers to get it to his desk for a signature by 5 p.m. Friday.
And so ends a dispute that offered a most appropriate ending for this most contentious session – the solons couldn’t agree on whether they had agreed. Members of the mostly-Republican Senate Majority Coalition Caucus were told Wednesday that the deal was here. Representatives of the Democratic majority in the House insisted it was not. But it all boiled down to a matter of semantics – the numbers were cooked, all that remained were a couple of policy matters, and staffers were already updating the final budget bill and getting it ready for printing. Legislatures in previous years had declared the deal done on less provocation.
Now even that most silly of arguments appears to be over. In a photo op that lasted all of 90 seconds, the governor read a brief statement proclaiming the budget battle finito, the lawmakers stood behind him – and before anyone could ask any questions, they turned and walked out of the room. All will become clear in due time, promised Inslee communications director David Postman, once the budget bill is ready. “You will all see the big fat thing soon,” he said.
Governor Reads Statement
Here’s what the governor had to say once the TV cameras were turned on. “I am happy and I know we are all relieved to report to you that lawmakers have reached agreement on an operating budget for the next biennium. This allows us to avert a government shutdown on Monday.
“Legislative leaders tell me they will move as quickly as possible to pass the budget and get it to me for my signature. They say that can be done by 5 p.m. Friday.
“However, the deal reached today makes it clear that state government will continue to operate. We will be notifying state employees to report to work Monday, July 1.
“Government operations will not be interrupted. All government functions will be in operation Monday. Washington will be at work Monday.”
But What About the Fish?
There are still a thousand questions about the budget that apparently will not be answered until the phone-book-sized bill begins landing on lawmakers’ desks. A statement issued by Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, nails down a few points – it totals $33.6 billion, and it provides $1 billion to meet the K-12 spending obligations of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. And negotiators shared a few other points, none of them surprises: The deal assumes passage of a telecom tax measure that will end a tax break for landline customers, it authorizes the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, and it aims to create some efficiencies in state-employee health insurance programs. Higher education tuition will be frozen for the 2013-14 school year, and only modest increases will be permitted in 2014-15.
But there are a hundred other issues that depend on the budget, and there isn’t much enlightenment there. One key issue that has emerged into public view in recent days is the Boeing Co.’s request for a study of fish-consumption patterns in Washington – a study that could have a big impact on regulators’ plans to adopt new stringent water-quality standards by the end of 2014. Compliance costs for business and local government are estimated to be high, perhaps in the billions, as the state’s current plans would require it to adopt water quality standards so tough that they cannot be met with existing technology. Discharges also might be required to be cleaner than the waters into which they flow. Yet there is no firm data on whether the effort would reduce toxins consumed by Washington residents in the form of fish.
Lawmakers said that issue has been plucked from the budget as negotiators for both chambers continue to meet with the governor’s office. A final deal could be incorporated in the budget, possibly in the form of a floor amendment. Key players on the issue could be seen negotiating the issue Thursday during a late-night session of the House.
Everything else remains to be seen — in a literal sense. Until the budget bill is available for inspection, all is guesswork. Members received briefings about the budget bill Thursday afternoon, but all said afterword that the briefings dealt only with the broad strokes. Presumably more will be revealed Friday morning at an 8:30 a.m. hearing of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which will set in motion the voting process that ultimately will deliver the budget to Inslee’s desk.
It should be noted that the passage of the budget may not be sufficient to end the session. An effort to pass a transportation tax package has yet to play out. But after a session that has dragged on for nearly six months, it may not be safe, after that budget vote, for the governor to stand in the way of the exit door.
Hill Calls Plan Sustainable
Hill, who represented the Senate Majority Caucus in the negotiation, issued a statement after the press conference concluded. He said:
“All year I’ve been working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Legislature to establish a sustainable plan that prioritizes education and lives within our means. I’m looking forward to finalizing and voting on a budget that puts an additional $1 billion dollars directly toward the basic-education obligations associated with the McCleary court ruling; protects our state’s economic slow but steady recovery; and provides relief for college students and their parents by ending tuition increases during the upcoming two year budget.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done and I won’t stop until the plan is approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but I’m pleased that we were able to work together in good faith to find a compromise while still holding firm to prioritize the education of more than a million students statewide.”
Dems Call Plan Unsustainable
And from the other team came a note of neither triumph nor defeat – a recognition that the budget did not provide the big tax increases Dems had been hoping to win this year. And with the clever adoption of a term more commonly used by Republicans, the Democrats said the lack of big tax increases makes the budget “unsustainable.” Said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, “I am very pleased we have a budget agreement that takes a good first step toward meeting our obligation to fund schools, extends health care coverage to 300,000 more people, and maintains vital services for our most vulnerable.
“I’m also glad that we addressed two other court decisions that had the potential to drain our budget of more than $1 billion.
“This is a good budget. 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.”
Said House Appropriations Chair Ross Hunter, “We’re satisfied that this budget makes good on our responsibility to fund the basic education expansion required by the McCleary decision, puts enough money into higher education that we don’t need to raise tuition this year, expands healthcare to almost 300,000 Washingtonians and handles our responsibilities for running a civil society – legal system, courts, prisons, foster care, for example.
“The investments in this budget closely resemble those in the budget we passed earlier this year. But the funding of those investments is not sustainable in the future, and we have more work to do to meet our McCleary obligations.”