OLYMPIA, June 21.—You could feel it all around the statehouse Thursday – a sense that adjournment is nigh – but probably the most important indication was something you could see in the legislative parking lot, long after official business had ended for the day.
At 10:30 p.m. a dozen cars were still there.
You can bet the solons weren’t there to watch the NBA championship. Or at least, budget negotiators allowed before the evening talks began — all right, they might leave the TV on, but they would be devoting their full attention and concentration to the people’s business, and they would look at the screen only when their minds were not occupied by more important things. “We will be watching the championship game as the numbers come back and forth,” said state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.
At this point, there is still no official word about whether there is a session-ending deal between the House Democrats and the largely Republican majority coalition in the Senate, but some members Thursday felt close enough that some started Tweeting predictions that they would be adjourning by Sunday. Whether that actually can be accomplished is another question – several House members, it is said, are out of the country on official or unofficial business. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said a Sunday sayonara gives lawmakers something to shoot for. Things are that close.
Money Changes Everything
The backstory, of course, is that a pair of rosy fiscal predictions this week has lifted a burden from lawmakers’ shoulders and has erased most fears that they would fail to pass a budget by June 30. Failure to pass a budget would be the equivalent of a state-government heart attack: Workers would be laid off, state government functions would shut down. But while the fear has been fanned for what appear to be political reasons in recent days, it would be a situation that never has occurred in Washington history. Often it takes a deadline to force lawmakers to come to agreement.
With that new money an agreement has suddenly become much easier. A tax-revenue forecast and a caseload forecast delivered a total $321 million to House and Senate budget-writers. And while precision is pointless when talking about fast-changing and assumption-laden budget proposals, that amount is pretty close to the difference that separated the House and Senate as they lobbed competing spending plans back and forth across the Rotunda earlier this month. There are still a number of big differences in spending priorities. The two teams have some sideline debates as well, about government reforms and the perennial “war on loopholes.”
When news of the additional revenue came Tuesday, Senate coalition leaders made a remarkable offer. They would give up on their most controversial policy bills if the House would give up on taxes. So far there hasn’t been any official word of response from the House Democrats. But eagle-eyed reporters couldn’t help but notice the scurrying of key players in the budget talks Thursday: House Appropriations Chair Ross Hunter and House Finance Chair Reuven Carlyle were in and out of Senate offices all afternoon.
Reporters kept buttonholing leaders as they emerged from the backrooms, seeking any scrap of information, and begging them to negotiate in the press – please?
“We’re working toward a deal so we can get out of here on Sunday,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chair Linda Parlette Evans, R-Wenatchee. “I miss Eastern Washington.”
Said Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, “We have some really light colored smoke coming out of the stack.”
Said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, “It’s a beautiful day.”
All in Their Places With Bright Shining Faces
Though the House did not meet Thursday, there were a full 25 minutes of action on the Senate floor Thursday. Five non-controversial bills were passed by the chamber, all but one of them by unanimous votes. The only exception passed with a vote of 46-2. Minority Democrats did some harrumphing. At a rules committee meeting Thursday afternoon, Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he considered them a diversion from the main task of passing a budget. And during brief debate on one measure, Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, started to complain that “we haven’t appeared on this floor for the last seven days –“
But this moment of high drama was interrupted by Senate Majority Floor Leader Joe Fain, R-Covington, who noted that members are required to speak to the merits of the legislation before them, and Darneille was cautioned not to stray by Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. When the day’s business had concluded, Senate Republican Floor Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said there had been good reason to bring those bills up. The bills, on subjects like state-agency rules-review processes and efforts to create a one-stop Web portal for payment of business taxes, are referenced in the soon-to-emerge budget measure. Thus they had to be passed before the end of the session.
“We wanted to start the ball rolling,” he said.
And the floor action in Senate seemed to disprove one widely whispered theory – that the Senate has been holding things up because members are on vacation. Some 48 of 49 members were present Thursday.
One interesting point: A rather controversial measure on workers’ compensation reform, SB 5127, had been advanced to the floor calendar, but it was not brought up for a floor vote. That measure, which would expand a structured settlement program for workers’ compensation claims, enjoys broad support in the Senate, but faces great resistance from the House. Schoesler said the Senate still hopes to pass the measure – and indeed, Senate leaders appeared to offer the House a swap for that bill, when they suggested at a Tuesday news conference that it might be traded for a telecommunications tax measure and another bill narrowing a sales-tax exemption for out-of-state residents. But by failing to put the workers’ comp bill in motion Thursday, the Senate appeared to signal that no deal has been reached on that measure. “There are ways it could happen,” Schoesler said Thursday.
He said, “We actually believe we should and can be done Sunday night. This nonsense about pink slips doesn’t need to be. There is more than enough money after the revenue forecast and the caseload forecast. I think we are making a lot of headway.”