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Originally published March 5, 2012 at 7:48 PM | Page modified March 5, 2012 at 8:43 PM

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Special session if no budget deal is reached by Thursday deadline

The state Legislature teetered on the edge of going into special session as Democratic and Republican leaders started tentative budget negotiations Monday.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — The Legislature teetered on the edge of going into special session as Democratic and Republican leaders started tentative budget negotiations Monday.

There were signs of a slight thaw in relations between the two parties, after the GOP seized control of the Senate over the weekend and passed its budget with the help of three conservative Democrats, by a 25-24 vote.

The Republican takeover shocked and angered Democratic leaders, whose first reaction was to ignore the GOP budget. But Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray said he's begun discussions with Republicans.

"We're talking," Murray said, noting he sent a list of ideas for a possible compromise to Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, architect of the GOP budget.

Murray said he believes it's still possible to pass a compromise budget by Thursday, the last day of the regular session.

Getting there would require significant compromise between the GOP budget and the House Democratic proposal, the only two that have passed.

"The Senate passed a budget, the House has passed a budget, we need to reconcile those differences," Zarelli said. "The parties are going to have to work together or we don't get out of here."

Democrats hold a 56-42 majority in the House.

One of the biggest differences between the two plans is the use of accounting gimmicks to help close a roughly $1 billion budget shortfall.

House Democrats propose delaying a June 2013 K-12 payment until July 2013, which would put the expenditure into the next two-year budget cycle. They also would delay levy-equalization payments — money that supports "property poor" districts — in a similar fashion.

Combined, the delayed payments push about $405 million in spending into the next budget.

Senate Republicans would not delay any payments to schools, but their budget calls for skipping a $133 million payment toward funding older, closed pension plans for teachers and state workers.

Cuts to schools

In addition, the GOP budget would cut K-12 more than the House proposal. The Republican budget would make about $44 million in cuts to schools, compared with about $7 million in the House.

For example, Running Start, a program that lets high-school students earn college credits, would be cut by $8 million.

Yet Republicans go easier than Democrats on higher education, making a net cut of about $30 million. The House budget would cut about $51 million from higher education, including a 3 percent budget trim to universities and two-year colleges.

The Senate Democratic proposal made no cuts to education.

The GOP plan also would eliminate a program known as Disability Lifeline, a welfare and health-care program for unemployable adults who aren't covered by Social Security benefits. House Democrats would retain that program.

Zarelli said there are no hard lines in the Republican budget and there's plenty of room for compromise.

Republicans, however, will demand that any budget approved this year not create a shortfall in the next two-year budget. Any plan also must leave a "reasonable" amount of money in reserve and not delay payments to K-12 education, Zarelli said.

Looking for votes

Whether the Legislature can make it out on time depends on whether lawmakers can quickly craft a budget that gets 25 votes in the Senate and 50 votes in the House.

Republicans said they're confident of having the votes needed to retain control of the budget in the Senate, but Democrats clearly are trying to find ways to peel off one senator so they can pass their budget.

Murray maintains Republicans have the harder road ahead.

"Senate Democrats need to find one vote. Senate Republicans need to find 50 votes (in the House)," Murray said. "Somewhere in between those two numbers should be compromise."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266

or agarber@seattletimes.com

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