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Acrimony, Gridlock As Washington Lawmakers Convene For Special Session

Austin Jenkins/Northwest News Network
Only four Washington state Senators were on hand as a special session was gaveled to order on Monday morning. Lawmakers have the next 30 days to find agreement on a budget and school funding or go into a second special session.

Acrimony and gridlock. That’s the state of affairs at the Washington state Capitol where  lawmakers Monday began a 30-day overtime session. Gov.Jay Inslee called lawmakers back after they failed to reach agreement on a state budget and school funding package. 

There were just four state senators on the floor as the Washington Senate was gaveled in at 10 a.m. But that’s all it took to pass a Resolution that states in part: “The public interest requires that the business of the 2017 first special session … be considered and acted upon as efficiently and expeditiously as possible.”

Despite what the resolution says, there’s nothing to suggest this special session will be either efficient or expeditious. Slow and acrimonious seems more likely. Consider what happened in the Senate on Friday evening as the regular session came to a close.

Majority Republicans forced a vote on a pair of tax bills proposed by House Democrats--including a capital gains tax. Republicans wanted to show the taxes couldn’t pass.

“I am hopeful with this action we can set this idea aside saying ‘it is not right for the state of Washington’ and we can truly begin negotiations for our operating budget in this session,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman John Braun, a Republican.

Democrats countered that budget negotiations must come before tax votes.

“The idea that we would just vote on some random tax package for the sake of taxes is ludicrous,” said Senator Kevin Ranker, the top Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

In the end both sides voted the taxes down--for different reasons. Republicans called it a “win for the taxpayers.” Democrats called it “a stunt.”

This was the just the latest chapter in a weeks long game of "chicken" over the state budget and how to fully fund schools, as required by the Washington Supreme Court. It's a game that shows no signs of abating as the special session gets underway.

In fact both House Democrats and Senate Republicans offered virtually the same answer to why they won’t give an inch.

“The question translated is will you negotiate against yourselves and lower your position to see if that will work?” said House Appropriations chair Timm Ormbsy, a Democrat.

Said Sen. Braun, “One thing we’re not going to do is we’re not going to negotiate with ourselves.”

So where does this leave budget negotiations for now?

Both sides are far apart. Democrats say higher taxes are need to fund schools and protect the social safety net. Republicans want to shift the burden of funding schools away from local levies and onto the state with a new state property tax levy.

On the floor of the state Senate last Friday, Ranker stated the obvious: Democrats don’t support the Republican approach and Republicans don’t support the Democratic approach.

“So what does that mean?" Ranker asked. "That means we put our proposals aside and we become adults and we work together to develop a go-home budget, a compromise because politics in the end must be the art of yes.”

While Ranker called on lawmakers to be adults, Republican Doug Ericksen suggested middle-schoolers could solve this problem.

“The key thing that we have to do is determine the size of the sand box," Ericksen said. "How much money do we have, how much money are we taking from the people of Washington state to fund the priorities of government?”

In these early days of the special session, just key lawmakers are needed at the Capitol. Members of a bipartisan task force will continue to meet this week on school funding. Budget negotiators are also in town, but have not yet scheduled any formal negotiations. 

“That does not put us on a trajectory to being done anytime soon, let alone by the end of the fiscal year,” said Ormsby, the House budget chair. 

The fiscal year ends June 30. If there’s no budget by then, state government will shut down—at least partially. 

“I still feel very confident that we’ll have a bipartisan budget out well before the end of June,” said Braun, the Senate budget chair.

The special session ends May 23. If there’s still no agreement by then, Inslee will likely call a second special session.