Work continues toward state budget deal
It was originally thought that they could possibly vote a budget bill out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee Friday night. But committee chairman Sen. Ed Murray later said they would not move on that bill yet that because both sides are still working out final details of agreement.
The committee held a public hearing on the budget bill and several others, including a controversial one dealing with health insurance for Washington's public school employees. The committee ultimately approved several bills on Friday, including a four-year balanced budget measure.
They also approved the health care measure. That bill would replace an original proposal to consolidate school employee health insurance under the state's Health Care Authority with one keeping health care administered by school districts. It would require the districts to provide financial and enrollment information to the state's Insurance Commissioner, and to move toward bringing down the cost of covering family members.
The Senate adjourned Friday night, and was scheduled to return this morning.
The 30-day special legislative session ends Tuesday.
Lawmakers are trying to close a roughly half-billion dollar shortfall for the two-year budget cycle ending June 2013.
Democrats hold majorities in both the House and the Senate, but last month, 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.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has been negotiating with all parties on a regular basis since special session started March 12. Republicans have been insisting on several bills, including measures to reform the state pension system.
Democrats have abandoned their initial proposal that would have largely balanced the budget by delaying a payment to schools into the next budget cycle, and Republicans have moved away from a plan to skip a pension payment for a year. Instead, they seem to be adopting an alternative accounting maneuver in which the state would temporarily claim control of local sales taxes before they are redistributed back to jurisdictions at their usual time -- roughly a month after they are collected. A bill using that apparently agreed-upon move was also tentatively approved by the committee Friday night. The measure won't be able to go to the floor until enough lawmakers from the committee sign on to it.
If lawmakers aren't able to get a budget deal by the end of special session early next week, it's possible they could get called back again. If that happens, it would be the third special session for lawmakers to deal with the supplemental budget. They spent nearly three weeks in a special session that ended mid-December, weeks before the regular session started in January.
In addition to the supplemental budget, lawmakers still need to pass a construction budget and several bills tied to the budget.
Earlier Friday, the Senate chamber passed a measure to overhaul community custody in Washington state.
The measure, which passed on a 43-2 vote, would put in place what backers call "swift and certain" sanctions for offenders under Department of Corrections supervision. The measure passed the Senate in February during the regular session but died in the House.
Under the bill, minor offenses would lead to up to three days in jail. More serious offenses would result in up to 30 days in jail. Outright criminal activity would be dealt with by the courts.
Currently, offenders receive anything from no punishment to 60 days behind bars for violating the terms of their community custody.
Some House Republicans oppose the bill because ex-convicts would face reduced penalties.
-- On a 68-26 vote, the House passed a measure to repeal a voter-approved initiative requiring the state to use surplus funds on improving K-12 student learning. In its place, the bill would create a task force on education funding to recommend how to pay for basic education programs.
Initiative 728 was passed by Washington voters in 2000. In recent years lawmakers have suspended its requirements, citing budget shortfalls.
--The House, on a 60-34 vote, passed a measure to ban a potentially carcinogenic flame retardant widely used in children's products. It would ban a pair of what are known as Tris chemicals: chlorinated Tris and TCEP.
The former is a flame retardant that was used in children's pajamas in the 1970s but was voluntarily taken off the market by manufacturers over health concerns. It has since returned to use, primarily as a fire retardant in polyurethane foam, a highly flammable but cost-effective component of many children's products. The measure now goes to the Senate.
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