Wash. Senate GOPers use rare tactic to pass budget plan

Wash. Senate GOPers use rare tactic to pass budget plan
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Senate Republicans successfully used a rare procedural move to seize a philosophical majority and passed their own budget proposal off the Senate floor early Saturday morning.

The measure moved on a 25-24 vote and now heads to the House, where it is certain to face a challenge from majority Democrats there, as well as Gov. Chris Gregoire.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, didn't mince words in a statement issued shortly after Republicans gained leverage in the Senate, saying that the "Senate Republicans have exercised the worst abuse of power I have ever witnessed in the Legislature."

Three Democrats broke from their party to allow the procedure - known as a "Ninth Order" - to take place and then voted in favor of the Republican plan.

Republicans, who are in the minority, needed Democratic support to make the bold move. Three Democrats - Sens. Tim Sheldon of Potlach, Rodney Tom of Medina and Jim Kastama of Puyallup - voted with Republicans in favor of going to the Ninth Order, which allows any bill to be pulled to the floor, even those that haven't had a public hearing. The move started a debate that lasted more than nine hours and ultimately ended with passage of the Republican budget.

Sen. Ed Murray, a Seattle Democrat who wrote the Democrats' budget, called the Republican plan "a narrow, extremist agenda that's being shoved down our throats."

Republicans and the three Democrats voted against all of the more than 30 Democratic amendments put forth Friday night during the debate. All were seeking to restore funding to programs that were cut under the Republican proposal.

In referencing the failed amendments, Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, the Senate GOP's lead on budget issues said, "you can't just buy stuff because it's all important."

"We need to make the hard choices," he said.

Republicans had taken issue with Democrats' plan to rely on a $330 million delay in payments to school districts to help balance the current budget deficit, and in their budget Republicans eliminate that option. While the Senate Democrats' budget proposal called for no cuts to education or higher education, the Republican plan makes a total of $74 million in cuts to those areas. Republicans also make deeper cuts to health and human services programs, including reducing the amount of money in monthly grants that are given to people through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, called the Republicans' proposal, which was kept under wraps until it was brought to the floor, a "dark, back room, secret document."

In an attempt to delay the Republicans from being able to bring their bill to the floor, Democrats tried different motions, including having the Senate take a break so Democrats could caucus, but they were voted down. However, a request for the clerk to read the governor's original budget bill was made Friday evening, and it was read for well over an hour until they decided to take a break so that Democrats could work on amendments to the bill.

"Where's the transparency?" asked Gregoire, who said she was angry that the bill Republicans were proposing had not had a public hearing, and that she and other Democrats had not seen it until they moved it to the floor. "This is not how we do business in Washington state."

Gregoire met with House Democratic leadership while events were unfolding in the Senate. She said any negotiations over a budget would start from the proposal House Democrats passed earlier this week, not the bill that inevitably would be voted on in the Senate Friday night.

Republicans have argued that the Senate Democrats' budget plan, unveiled earlier this week, doesn't focus enough on reforming state government.

Lawmakers initially had been looking at a $2 billion budget problem but addressed some of it during a special legislative session in December. They were later helped, in part, by a forecast in February that showed a slight uptick in revenue.

That came in addition to about $340 million in savings because of a drop in demand for state services, or caseloads, reducing a roughly $900 million shortfall to about $500 million for the two-year budget cycle ending June 2013.

The Senate Democrats' plan is similar to a House proposal unveiled last week and passed Monday by the House, which had about $400 million in delayed expenditures. Murray said that shift in the calendar allowed lawmakers to avoid further cuts.

Murray said this week that he didn't yet have the 25 votes needed to pass the budget, and so Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt said Republicans felt they needed to take their opportunity. Democrats hold a 27-22 majority, but the support of several moderate Democrats was up in the air. Once Republicans knew they could peel off Democratic votes, they moved.

"This is not about partisan politics," Hewitt said. "This is about trying to get things to work right."

The Republican plan also focused on several reform bills that they sponsored but didn't get traction, including a pension reform bill. The summary released by Senate Republicans also shows that their budget plan would reduce the amount of state funding to state employee health benefits, reduce bonuses for teachers and would eliminate a program known as Disability Lifeline, a health care program for unemployable adults who aren't covered by federal Social Security benefits. The Republican plan leaves $502 million in reserves, in case the economy underperforms in the future.

Kastama said he had no regrets about going against his caucus.

"It's necessary that we get another budget in play and we start negotiating with the House with a budget that is more balanced," he said. "Things have been so shut down. They need to be opened back up."

Also passed early Saturday morning was a bill making changes to the state retirement plans. Under the bill, the state wouldn't pay into the state retirement plans next year, but would resume contributions in 2014. It would also move all new state employees into a hybrid plan that splits the pension benefits between a portion based on employer contributions and a portion defined by the employee's own contributions.

Democrats decried the delayed payment, calling it a budget gimmick.

House and Senate Democrats must try to come to an agreement on the budget before the 60-day legislative session ends March 8, or else face going into overtime with a special legislative session.