Budget plans in flux at start of Legislature’s special session

As lawmakers debate how much money to spend on schools and state government, the budget proposal by House Democrats represents the high-water mark — one that even they cannot meet.

Their plan would spend $34.5 billion, of which $1.3 billion is an answer to a court mandate to devote more money to basic education. Both totals are the highest of the three plans on lawmakers’ bargaining table.

But Democrats are unlikely to be able to keep that position as lawmakers return to Olympia on Monday for a special session that could last up to 30 days. They acknowledge their budget doesn’t balance after dropping some of the components of a tax proposal to raise $1.3 billion.

“I have to correct my budget,” said Ross Hunter, the House budget chairman from Medina. The more than $180 million drop from abandoned tax proposals means less spending in multiple areas, Hunter said, including for education where he had sought $1.3 billion. “It’s hard to get to that number without that revenue.”

Democrats are still pushing for taxes, which Republicans oppose, as part of their budget solution. But in whittling down their plan last month near the end of lawmakers’ regular session, they decided against extending a temporary tax on beer and eliminating tax exemptions on the books that are intended to benefit dockworkers, insurance agents and janitorial services.

“With the items that have already dropped off, there’s absolutely no way that they can reach a four-year balanced budget,” said Senate GOP leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, referring to a four-year budgeting requirement lawmakers established last year.

Hunter counters that senators left many unspecified cuts in their budget — what he calls “gimmicks” — including assumptions that state agencies can find major savings through efficiencies and Gov. Jay Inslee’s lean-management plans.

Using efficiencies, cuts and transfers, the Senate majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats offered up $1 billion to address the McCleary decision that found the Legislature isn’t amply funding basic education. The extra money would partly fulfill promises lawmakers made in 2009 and 2010 to give school districts more.

Some education advocates worry that the final deal could reach only that lower amount of funding rather than higher amounts proposed by Inslee and the House — especially with fewer tax options on the table.

“The billion-dollar number’s got a little magic to it, so I think that’s where we’ll end up,” said Frank Ordway, a lobbyist for the League of Education Voters. “That’s still a half-billion short of what people thought we needed, so it sets up a pretty steep curve for the beginning of next biennium.”

A state task force recommended a $1.4 billion down payment this year followed by a phased increase to $4.5 billion by the 2017-2019 budget.

Rainy days

Another decision facing the Legislature is whether to tap the state’s $575 million rainy day fund. The Senate doesn’t touch it. But the House calls for using more than $200 million from the fund and moving the rest into regular reserves that could be tapped without lawmakers coming back to Olympia.

Hunter argued the Senate plan would leave so little available as an emergency cushion that any bad budget news such as an expensive fire season would force lawmakers to return for another special session.

“It’s been one of the driest springs on record. You know what that means,” Hunter said. “It means a big fire season.”

But a supermajority vote is needed to tap the rainy day fund, and some Republicans contend it’s not the time as state revenue is projected to grow by more than 6 percent from the current two-year budget.

The majority coalition faults Democrats for counting on tapping the fund in their budget, even though they didn’t have the votes to do so even in the House. Together with the dropped taxes, the coalition argues that leaves the two-year budget out of whack by $426 million and the four-year outlook off by $800 million. It’s “quite an accomplishment to raise taxes by almost $1.2 billion and still be out of balance,” says a handout that Schoesler and Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom included in a packet of information about the status of session.

“Four hundred twenty-six million,” Tom said, “is a big gap for them to sit there and say, ‘let’s start negotiating.’”