Washington lawmakers near end of second special session

The Washington Capitol in Olympia (Photo: KCPQ-TV)

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington lawmakers are nearing the end of their second special session, and with no signs that the Senate and House are any closer to agreement on education funding, the necessity of a third overtime session seems all but inevitable.

In addition to satisfying a state Supreme Court ruling on increasing state money to basic education, lawmakers also face a more imminent deadline: If the broader two-year state operating budget isn’t signed in law by midnight June 30, the state faces a partial government shutdown starting July 1.

Gov. Jay Inslee said that he met with leaders from each of the four caucuses on Monday to insist that they start face-to-face negotiations on the overall budget, something he said they agreed to do, starting on Tuesday.

“I appreciate the complexity of this challenge,” Inslee said at a news conference. “If there was an easy way to do this, indeed it would have been done already.”

In April, the Office of Financial Management asked agencies to update their contingency plans in case of a shutdown, and have been posting updates on its website. If a budget deal isn't reached by the end of next week, about 26,000 state employees will receive temporary layoff notices.

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.

"It's disappointing that we're here all over again," said David Schumacher, OFM's director.

The state has been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that found that school funding was not adequate or uniform. 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.

The Legislature must have a fully funded plan in place before they adjourn this year or else they risk the court stepping in again. The Republican-led Senate and Democratic-controlled House have disagreed on several areas, including whether or not new taxes are needed.

The second 30-day special session ends on June 21, a day after lawmakers will receive an updated revenue forecast. Inslee said that while lawmakers may indeed need a third special session to complete his work, he said he would not accept a temporary short-term budget to get them through the next month.

While most of the 147 members have been back home in their districts since the regular 105-day session ended at the end of April, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been meeting several times a week to negotiate policy surrounding education funding. Another group of lawmakers and other groups have been meeting on paid family leave. This week, several Senate committee hearings are scheduled, and the Senate is set to take to the floor Tuesday, likely to repass bills that previously passed in the regular and first special sessions.

Schumacher said that there are numerous groups that are talking about things in the budget, including mental health, and that several members of the governor's office have been involved in helping facilitate conversations on the broader budget picture.

"There's still time for them to get done if they start moving here soon," he said. "They are kind of running out of time to get done by July 1 if they wait much longer."

Democratic Rep. Kristine Lytton, who is involved in negotiations in both the overall budget and the education funding component, admitted that the overall budget negotiations were "moving at a glacial pace."

"It's hard to be optimistic," she said. "We've got a long ways to go."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler disagreed with that sentiment, saying that he was confident that lawmakers would reach agreement soon.

"Everyone has been negotiating in good faith, despite what folks might have heard, and we expect to be done before the end of this month," he said in an emailed statement.