Special session: Gov threatens vetoes over budget stalemate

Special session: Gov threatens vetoes over budget stalemate
Gov. Chris Gregoire
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - After a slow start, lawmakers have closed out the first week of the special legislative session with another Republican-crafted budget proposal to consider and an angry governor who is holding numerous bills hostage until a deal is reached.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she is going to withhold her signature from most of the bills she has left to sign and threatened to veto some of them to get the attention of lawmakers, who have been at an impasse for weeks over the supplementary budget.

Her anger was stoked by a Senate Republican budget plan unveiled Thursday that she says was done without her knowledge, even after several days of meetings between Gregoire and Democratic and Republican leadership.

"You've got to have trust in the room," Gregoire said Thursday. "This does not advance trust in the room."

But Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, argued that his efforts to get the House Democratic budget writer and the Senate Republican budget writer in face-to-face meetings were ignored, "so we made the move by doing a second budget."

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans established a philosophical majority in the Senate after three conservative Democrats stood with them on a GOP-crafted budget plan that then passed the Senate but stalled in the House. That chamber passed an alternate plan agreed to by majority Democrats in the House and Senate.

Lawmakers are looking to close a budget gap of about $500 million through the end of the two-year budget cycle, ending June 2013. They also hope to leave several hundred million dollars in reserves.

Lawmakers couldn't agree on a supplemental budget plan before the regular 60-day legislative session ended last week, and the governor called them back for a special session that could last up to 30 days.

The main sticking point between the two sides is Republicans' plan to skip a pension payment by a year, and Democrats plan to delay a $330 million payment to school districts by one day.

"Once we get that resolved, we can move through the rest of the budget fairly quickly," said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli said Thursday the latest proposal was designed to find some common ground. Democrats had balked at an initial Republican-led budget plan that would have cut some $43 million from K-12 education and $30 million from higher education. The budget plan has the support of three conservative Democrats, providing the GOP enough votes to pass the measure through the Senate.

Senate Democrats' chief budget writer, Sen. Ed Murray, said he was glad that Republicans moved toward Democrats' position on education, as his initial plan also avoided cuts to education.

"That's movement, but there's still significant issues to negotiate," Murray said.

The new plan also keeps less money in reserves, leaving $440 million instead of the $502 million in the initial Senate-passed bill. It includes more cuts to social services than the Democratic approach.

Republicans are also pushing several structural changes to state government, including a requirement that budgets be balanced over a four-year period and a consolidation of health insurance plans for education employees. They also want passage of a charter schools bill that Democrats largely oppose.

Budget writers from both parties are expected to meet with Marty Brown, Gregoire's budget director, on Monday.

Murray said that there's only about $200 million in spending differences between the proposal that was passed by the House and the newest proposal unveiled by Zarelli Thursday.

"That's not a big problem when you look at a $30 billion budget," he said. "Are they willing to compromise, and are we willing to compromise? A little movement on both parts could get us out town."

Gregoire said she's going to continue to keep the pressure on lawmakers "to get it done."

"For the public at large, I know they're frustrated," she said earlier this week. "But remember that human lives are impacted dramatically by the decisions that will be made."