UPDATED 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 26.
OLYMPIA, June 26.—As the Senate Majority Coalition was celebrating a budget deal Wednesday after weeks of hard-fought negotiation, Democrats were left insisting that there is no deal and there is still plenty of back-room dickering to come.
And it sounds like both are right. Lawmakers have reached agreement on a budget, in the nick of time to prevent a shutdown of state government on July 1. But there are a few kinks to be worked out – in particular, an issue that has loomed large in recent days, a study of fish consumption that could have a big impact on stringent new water-quality standards the state plans to adopt in 2014. The Boeing Co. has made the matter its top priority for the year, lawmakers say, but its plan is meeting with stiff resistance in Democratic ranks.
Here’s the thing, says Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina. The numbers are all agreed-upon. Budget staffers are already typing at lightspeed, entering the numbers into the computer for the big spending bill that will carry the state through the 2013-15 biennium. And if that’s not a deal, he says he doesn’t know what is.
“There are still provisions in that bill that need to be negotiated,” he allows. “It is funny. I can say, having written a budget, that we are long past the point where I said we had an agreement. But there is kind of a slow dance here.”
Indeed, in a year when it seems everything is a matter of dispute, even whether there is an agreement seems to be a matter of contention. Members of the House Democratic majority acknowledged to reporters Wednesday afternoon there is a framework for a deal, but they said they don’t consider it a deal until every last detail is settled. Budget negotiators were hard at work in the House and Senate chambers nailing down the last bits of policy language Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., but it is not clear how long it will take to reach a point of finality. Sources close to the negotiation expressed frustration that House Speaker Frank Chopp had left the Capitol for the day after a stunning upset on a transportation-tax bill late in the afternoon, making a final handshake impossible.
A Fish Tale
Because the details have not yet been publicly revealed, there is little to report about the give-and-take on taxes that has played out in recent days. Senators were briefed on the agreement Wednesday at lunchtime. The key point, they said, was that the budget provides more than $1 billion to implement the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which held that the state needed to beef up spending for basic K-12 education.
What remains to be settled are not matters of dollars and cents but rather of policy – the biggest of them having to do with a budget proviso launching the fish-consumption study. The Boeing Co. has mounted a full-court press for budget language that would require the study to be completed before the state adopts new water-quality standards. The rules the state is contemplating adopting next year for industrial and wastewater discharges would exceed standards that are attainable by current technology, and could mandate that discharges be cleaner than the waterways into which the discharges are made. The state’s rationale is that the new standards are justified by a more realistic appraisal of the volume of fish eaten by members of Indian tribes, widely acknowledged as the population most dependent on fish for its diet. The proposed million-dollar study would aim to fill in some of the big blanks in the argument. For instance, how much of the fish consumed in the state actually originate in Washington waterways, and whether an aggressive and costly pollution control effort would have any impact on human health.
It’s a sticking point, all right, Tom said. The costly new requirements have thrown a fright into some of the state’s largest businesses, Boeing in particular. The governor’s office has proposed that the rulemaking proceed at the same time the study is conducted, even though it would mean the rules would be adopted before the study is completed. “It is a travesty,” Tom said. “What we continue to see is Washington trying to chase out Boeing instead of putting out the welcome mat. I can guarantee you, the boys in South Carolina are probably pretty happy with our actions, because we have done everything possible to send Boeing to South Carolina short of just dropkicking them out the door and putting up the ‘We are not open for business in Washington’ sign.”
State Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, who is working alongside former House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt to broker a deal on the fish issue, said Boeing Wednesday was circulating a counterproposal that still would require completion of the fish-consumption study before it adopts a final water-quality standard. “I know that is a non-starter from the tribes’ perspective, and from the department’s and the governor’s, so I’m not exactly sure what is going to happen,” she said.
You Call That a Deal?
Lawmakers in House and Senate say the fish-consumption issue isn’t the only policy matter that remains to be resolved in the budget. Other issues include state policy with regard to recovery plans for the protected Eastern Washington wolf population. So whether the agreement can be called a deal depends on how you define the term. There are still negotiations that need to take place, said House Finance Chairman Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. There’s a budget framework, and a sturdy one, but not what he calls a final agreement.
“You know, framework is a big word,” he said. “We’ve had the framework of a deal for almost a day, but we don’t have a deal. I think we are super-close. I think a deal is possible. I think it is.”
Governor’s Office Disputes Claim
Earlier in the day, the Senate Majority coalition announced to its members that a deal had been reached and the claim was immediately disputed by the governor’s office. Communications director David Postman issued a statement while the Senate’s noontime meeting was taking place:
“I understand that the Senate majority has announced that there is a budget agreement. No one has reported to the governor or his budget director that there is an agreement. And, in fact, the House has told us that it is still negotiating with the Senate at this hour. We believe we are close, but as of now there is more work to be done. I’ll take it as a good sign that the Senate is anxious to make an announcement, but it is premature for anyone to say at this point that a deal has been struck.”
House Democratic staffers called talk of a deal “a false rumor.”
Ring of Finality
But the announcement from the Senate certainly had a ring of finality. In the email sent to members Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Caucus Chair Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said:
“I’m happy to inform you that this morning we have reached an agreement with Speaker Chopp and the House Democrats on an operating budget that will allow us to complete our work this second special session.
“We conveyed to the Speaker our belief that, with it being day 15 of the second special session, time is of the essence, and that we can no longer afford to delay action if we hope to avoid a government shutdown. Families need to know that they can keep their 4th of July plans because parks will remain open. School districts need to plan their budgets. Mothers and fathers who work for the state need to be confident that they will receive their paychecks in two weeks to put food on the table for their children. And taxpayers have a right to know that the important services that they have paid for and depend on will be available to them.
“This agreement will allow us to complete our work and provide the public with the certainty it deserves.
“The Majority Coalition Caucus negotiators fought hard to prioritize funding for education and higher education, and the House Democrat negotiators fought equally hard for prioritizing spending on social-service programs. Neither side got everything it wanted (this is truly a compromise budget), but in the end I think we arrived at a balanced approach that everyone can live with and that brings us closer to the education-first budget many of us envisioned.
“Thanks to all of you for your hard work and sacrifices over the last 6 months, and for the continued effort that will be required of you over the next few days. I especially appreciate the work each of you has done in your specific areas of the budget.
“If you need to complete that work, please do so. Otherwise, please convene in the caucus room at 11:45 a.m., so that we may brief you in greater detail on the specifics of the budget agreement.”