Lawmakers at the House stand during the Pledge of Allegiance on Tuesday in Olympia. The Legislature must send a new two-year budget this week or else risk a partial government shutdown. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)

State legislative leaders say they are closing in on budget deal

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — With the deadline to avoid a potential government shutdown looming, legislative leaders said Tuesday afternoon they were close but had not yet reached final agreement on a new two-year state operating budget.

The Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate have been struggling for months to find compromise on a budget that addresses a state Supreme Court mandate on education funding.

They are in the midst of a third overtime session, and if a new budget isn’t signed into law by midnight Friday, a partial shutdown starts Saturday.

Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby, one of the main budget negotiators for the House, said they would need to have an agreement by this morning to ensure they get the budget to the governor in time. He said legislative staff would need 48 hours to draft the bill.

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.

As for why this is the third time lawmakers are taking budget talks to the precipice of a shutdown, Ormsby said: “This is what divided government looks like.”

But he noted there has been no acrimony among negotiators.

“We’re just representing disparate political philosophies and trying to understand what those are,” he said. “Trying to overcome them has been the work, but the tone has always been good and remains good.”

An added challenge for the Legislature this year is addressing the education component of the budget.

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

Lawmakers already have 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. Senate Republicans and House Democrats have disagreed on several areas, including whether new taxes are needed.

“This is the most complicated public policy that any of us have seen here in Olympia,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler.

“Getting it right is really important.”

Contingency plans for a potential shutdown have been ongoing for weeks, and notices went out last week to about 32,000 state workers warning them they will be temporarily laid off if a budget is not in place by the deadline.

A partial shutdown would affect everything from community supervision of offenders on probation, to meal services to the elderly, to reservations made at state parks.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler talks to the media in the Senate wings Tuesday in Olympia. He said that lawmakers are close to agreement on a two-year state budget. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)

Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby talks to the media in the House wings about the state of budget negotiations Tuesday in Olympia. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)