Legislative Leaders Say They Are Closing In On Budget Deal

By Rachel La Corte, Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — With the deadline to avoid a potential government shutdown looming, legislative leaders said Tuesday they are close but have not yet reached final agreement on a new two-year state operating budget.

The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate have been struggling for months to find compromise on a budget that addresses a state Supreme Court mandate on education funding. They are in the midst of a third overtime session, and if a new budget isn’t signed into law by midnight Friday, a partial shutdown starts July 1.

Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby, one of the main budget negotiators for the House, said they would need to have an agreement by Wednesday morning to ensure they get the budget to the governor in time. He said that legislative staff would need 48 hours to draft the bill.

While Washington state has never had a partial government shutdown, the Legislature has taken its budget talks to the brink before, including in 2013 and 2015, with budgets not signed by the governor until June 30 both years.

As for why this is the third time lawmakers are taking budget talks to the precipice of a shutdown, Ormsby said: “this is what divided government looks like.”

But he noted there has been no acrimony among negotiators.

“We’re just representing disparate political philosophies and trying to understand what those are,” he said. “Trying to overcome them has been the work, but the tone has always been good and remains good.”

An added challenge for the Legislature this year is addressing the education component of the budget.

The state has been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 high court ruling that found that school funding was not adequate. Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies. Senate Republicans and House Democrats have disagreed on several areas, including whether or not new taxes are needed.

“This is the most complicated public policy that any of us have seen here in Olympia,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler. “Getting it right is really important.”

Contingency plans for a potential shutdown have been ongoing for weeks, and notices went out last week to about 32,000 state workers warning them they will be temporarily laid off if a budget is not in place by the deadline. A partial shutdown would affect everything from community supervision of offenders on probation, to meal services to the elderly to reservations made at state parks.

Gov. Jay Inslee said that the threat of a shutdown is causing considerable anxiety for both state employees and residents who rely on state services.

“We want legislators to be able to focus on relieving that anxiety as soon as possible,” he said.

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