4/17/2014

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Politics

Senate majority names 33 bills for budget talks

Senate majority names 33 bills for budget talks
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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - As lawmakers wrap up their first week of a special legislative session, Senate majority leaders have asked that more than 30 bills be considered as part of the budget discussions.

A list of 33 measures, obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, was submitted during a private meeting Thursday, including bills dealing with changes to the workers' compensation system, education bills and other bills tied to the budget, including funding for state parks and higher education. Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler declined to comment on the list Friday.

Washington lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday for a special legislative session to address a projected budget deficit of more than $1.2 billion for the next two-year budget, plus a court-ordered increase in funding for the state's education system.

Budget writers in the House and Senate have been meeting since the regular session adjourned on April 28, and regularly this first week of special session. But with no deal reached during their two-week interim, the special session could take its full allotted 30 days and another special session could be called if their work isn't done by June 11.

Republican and Democratic budget negotiators have refused to speak in detail about their discussions, saying they didn't want to negotiate in the press. But the lengthy list offered Thursday indicates that lawmakers could be a long way from finding agreement.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said leaders in his chamber also have a lot of bills they'd like to see passed, but that they haven't put forth a list because they want the priority to remain on the budget. He cautioned that if lawmakers are going to involve other measures in the budget process that the Legislature likely wouldn't be able to complete its work within the 30-day special session.

"We've got to focus on the budget," Sullivan said.

Some of the bills proposed by the Republican-dominated majority in the Senate have been broadly opposed by Democrats. One would create a 401(k)-style retirement system that state workers could use instead of a pension. Another would assign a letter grade to schools. Another would overhaul state spending on environmental cleanup.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the office was disappointed that the Senate list became public, noting that it could complicate budget talks.

The House and Senate have taken different approaches to balance state spending and increase funding for education, with the biggest difference centered on whether to raise revenue from extending taxes or eliminating tax breaks.

The Senate is controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, and they passed a budget during the regular session that balances spending without new taxes, relying on cuts to social programs and fund transfers. Several Democrats that voted with Republicans on that budget have said they voted only to keep the process moving, and in letters sent to Senate Republican budget writer Andy Hill this week, said that doesn't mean they'd vote yes again if the same budget were proposed as a final budget.

"As the members of the minority caucus who are the most sympathetic to your caucus theme of 'reform before revenue,' we see very clearly that the path forward in the budget negotiations is, in fact, both 'reform' and 'revenue,'" wrote Democratic Sens. Karen Fraser, Brian Hatfield, Steve Hobbs, Mark Mullet and Tracey Eide.

The House's budget would increase tax revenue by roughly $1 billion over the next two years, including a permanent extension of business taxes to raise more than half a billion dollars. The plan would also repeal tax breaks for travel agents, bottled water and fuel.

Inslee had initially asked lawmakers to consider other bills during special session, including legislation to combat gun violence, new rules related to abortion insurance and financial aid for young immigrants

But earlier this week he narrowed his list of top priorities, saying that the Legislature must focus on the operating budget, a transportation-funding package and new legislation to crack down on drunken drivers.
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