State lawmakers may go to special session
State lawmakers ran out of time in their race to wrap up business by midnight Sunday, and Gov. Chris Gregoire said she may call a special legislation session to deal with the handful of bills remaining.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Balancing the budgetBudget writers say it would cost about $39 billion to maintain existing state services and cover wage and caseload increases, such as higher school enrollments, through June 2011. But they project the state will collect only about $30 billion in taxes. The difference is the $9 billion shortfall.
• Lawmakers used nearly $5 billion in one-time funding, including federal stimulus money, cash from the construction budget and the rainy-day fund, to close most of the gap. That left $4 billion in spending reductions.
• Counting the one-time money, the Legislature approved a budget of about $35 billion for 2009-2011, including $820 million in reserves. That compares with a $33.6 billion budget for 2007-09 previously approved by the Legislature.
The 2007-09 budget also was cut this session.
OLYMPIA -- State lawmakers ran out of time in their race to wrap up business by midnight Sunday, and Gov. Chris Gregoire said she may call a special legislation session to deal with the handful of bills remaining.
The major work of the session was finished, but five bills were still pending in the House. The Senate had completed its work by the deadline.
Lawmakers were expected to meet with Gregoire and decide this week, possibly within 48 hours, whether to hold a special session, said Pearse Edwards, Gregoire's spokesman.
One question was whether the session could be limited to only a few days. Lawmakers also said that if a special session is called, it allows other bills that previously died back into play.
Those could include a plan to alter Initiative 937 -- which requires some utilities to get a certain percentage of their power from sources such as wind or solar -- and Gregoire's requested legislation on climate change.
"Once we're called back, the Legislature has the ability to bring up other topics," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. "But I'm not sure there's a large appetite for that. The good news is that almost all the key things are done."
One of the bills that remained unresolved was a plan to reduce financing for a program that benefits "property-poor" schools, to which House Republicans objected heavily.
Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes, characterized the few remaining bills on the Legislature's schedule as a "few small issues."
"We're going to be evaluating those with the governor's office and the Senate about whether they're worth coming back to special session or not," Morris said.
One of the last bills that passed the Legislature late Sunday was a major priority for the Boeing Co., a bill that would cut unemployment taxes for employers.
As the regular session wound down, there was little of the backslapping and early partying seen in past when a booming economy made writing a state budget a lot easier. Instead, lawmakers wanted to leave behind 105 days of arguing over how to close a $9 billion budget shortfall, the biggest in state history.
"It's like 'OK, let's just get out of here' because it's really been hard. It's hard to kick up your heels because what we've had to do is so difficult," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.
Legislators eliminated pay increases for teachers and state workers, cut funding for public schools, sharply reduced subsidized health care for the poor and allowed universities to increase tuition by 30 percent over the next two years while also cutting 9,000 slots from higher education.
Some 8,000 government jobs could be lost.
Yet lawmakers leave Olympia knowing all the spending cuts made during the past three months won't solve their problem. Budget writers expect another whopping budget shortfall two years from now.
"I'm planning on a $3.3 billion shortfall. And that's if everything goes well," said Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
That's because the state still expects to spend more money than it takes in during the next two years.
One big reason: The majority of the budget shortfall was filled with nearly $5 billion in one-time funds, including federal aid, money shifted from the state construction budget and emergency reserves. The rest was bridged through nearly $4 billion in spending reductions.
Once used, the $5 billion in one-time money is gone and for the most part won't be available the next time lawmakers write a budget.
Budget writers also expect the state to recover slowly from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. During the next two years, tax collections are expected to remain flat -- as in no growth at all.
There was talk during the session of asking voters to increase the state sales tax to help pay for health-care programs, or even create an income tax to provide more money. But in the end, Democrats could not muster the votes.
Republicans argue the session was a missed opportunity for Democrats, who control the House, Senate and governor's office, to reform state government and cut spending to bring it in line with revenues.
"This budget reflects a series of bad choices that stand to cost our state for years," Sen. Joe Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement.
Linville disagreed, saying the new budget is just the first step. "We can't reform during a budget crisis in a three-month period," she said. "We haven't missed the opportunity yet. This is still going on. That's old thinking that you write the budget and then you're done."
Democrats will keep working on the problem, she said. "We're going to have two years to make government work better, because in two years we may be in the same place we are now because of our one-time money."
Balancing the budget, albeit temporarily, wasn't the only thing the Legislature did this session.
For the first time in 30 years, it made major additions to the basic-education program it provides Washington's public-school students.
Lawmakers passed legislation that calls for a full day of school for kindergartners, commits the state to pay for six classes a day for middle- and high-school students rather than five and recommends that the state offer preschool to students from low-income families.
The price tag will be in the billions, although it's unclear where the money will come from. The bill also doesn't establish a start date for the new basic-education program, but says it must be fully in place by 2018.
The Legislature also passed a law directing the state to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel, a measure that allows for early tolling on the Highway 520 bridge to help pay for a replacement and legislation that basically gives same-sex couples every state-granted benefit that married couples have -- except the name marriage itself.
Still, there was a noticeable absence of major legislation this session.
An attempt to establish a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases got sidetracked by concerns that it could hurt business and increase energy prices.
"The economic crisis and our own budget sucked the oxygen out of this place," said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus. "Everyone's energy went into how do we preserve basic government services and still make the biggest cuts in state history."
Staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or email@example.com
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