Washington budgets remain in limbo


OLYMPIA — With four days left to pass three multibillion-dollar budgets and make the changes in state law that accompany them, House Democrats on Wednesday pushed through a $900million package of tax changes they said would meet a court mandate to improve public schools.

Republicans in the Senate and House said new taxes weren’t needed to pay for better schools, insisting the operating budget the Senate passed two weeks ago without new taxes was the way to go.

Gov. Jay Inslee said the odds were poor for the Legislature to get all its work done by midnight Sunday, the close of the regular session. “I think we’d have to draw to an inside straight to get this done by Sunday night,” he told reporters.

Republican leaders were more optimistic: “Logjams can be broken,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “We’ve seen it before. We could see it again.”

To break the logjam, the Legislature and Inslee must agree on a two-year general operating budget of more than $33 billion to pay for most state programs, services and salaries, another budget of about $8.4 billion to maintain current transportation projects and a capital budget with about $3.6 billion for large construction projects.

Beyond those must-haves, there are proposals for a new package of transportation projects worth about $8.4 billion over 10 years, but they would need an increase in the gasoline tax and some other vehicle fees. Inslee also wants both chambers of the Legislature to vote on the Reproductive Parity Act on insurance coverage for abortion; the Washington Dream Act, which would open some state college aid to children of undocumented immigrants raised in the United States; and universal background checks on gun sales.

Senate Republicans would like the House to vote on changes it has passed on the workers’ compensation system. They won’t vote for a new transportation package that includes construction money for the Columbia River Crossing between Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

Significant differences remain over how much to spend and where to get the money for the operating budget.

The Senate plan calls for spending $33.2 billion over the next two years; the House plan would spend $34.5 billion.

The House budget gets about $1.1 billion by changes in current tax law. It repeals or shrinks tax preferences — called loopholes by their detractors — for nine business groups and makes permanent a tax on some professional businesses that was instituted in 2010 as a temporary tax and is set to expire on June 30.

The tax package will cost the state jobs, Republicans said.

“The best thing we can do for children who are at risk … is make sure their parents have jobs that support them,” Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said during the debate on the bill.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, countered: “I don’t like the business and occupation tax, but what I like even less is an uneducated workforce.”

The tax package passed the House 50-47, with four Democrats and all Republicans voting no.

Republicans were quick to point out that the no-new-tax budget that passed the Senate had nine Democratic votes, making it the more bipartisan plan of the two. But many Senate Democrats who voted for that earlier budget said they expected it to come back with at least some additional tax revenue when a compromise is worked out.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he wouldn’t bet against finishing by Sunday, but the logistics are daunting. After an agreement is reached, the compromise budget will have to be printed, introduced and passed by each chamber.

“Every day that goes by makes it more difficult,” Sullivan said.