There’s nothing quite like the threat of a government shutdown July 1 to infuse urgency into negotiations on a new state budget.
Party leaders in the House and Senate and Gov. Jay Inslee have met every morning since Monday to assess progress on reaching agreement in time to prevent an unprecedented halt to services throughout Washington.
On Tuesday, Senate Republican leaders said talks are on a “trajectory” to achieve a breakthrough this week.
And Tuesday night, the lead Democrat and Republican budget writers in the House announced they were having productive and “meaningful discussions that we believe will get us to a budget deal soon.”
So if you channel lawmakers’ optimism, it would seem a deal could be struck at literally any moment, though probably not before House Democrats drop their call for a capital gains tax.
But even if lawmakers avert a shutdown with passage of a new two-year spending plan, they might be unable to avoid punishment from the state Supreme Court over the budget’s contents.
Remember, the justices found that the 147 members of the Legislature were in contempt last September for not turning in a written plan of how they would ensure public elementary and secondary schools will receive ample state funding by a 2018 deadline.
The court requested the plan more than a year ago because it wanted to know specifically what legislators were intending to do and when they were going to do it.
There’s no sign yet such a manuscript is getting drafted. Lawmakers are still wrangling with the toughest elements in the court’s so-called McCleary mandate.
One part is pretty much done. The House and Senate are generally in accord on spending roughly $1.4 billion in the next budget to pay for all-day kindergarten, smaller classes in grades K-3 and student transportation and an increased portion of materials, supplies and operating costs of schools.
That’s only a third of the challenge, however.
Lawmakers also need to find a way to end school districts’ use of local property tax levies to help pay teachers, staff and administrators by having the state pick up the full tab. Accomplishing this will take time and money — how long and how much isn’t clear — and require school districts to trust they won’t be shortchanged in the process.
A handful of House and Senate members are persevering to craft a scheme that is financially feasible, politically palatable and legally acceptable with justices.
The third large piece is to figure out what to do about the voter mandate in Initiative 1351, which called for a reduction in the size of classes in all grades. Both chambers only endorse smaller classes through third grade and want to suspend the requirements for the remaining grades.
Senate Republicans want to ask voters this fall to embrace this approach. House Democrats say that’s too risky, because if voters say no, the price for shrinking class sizes in the upper grades is $2 billion.
House Democrats prefer that the Legislature suspend the measure, a move which requires support from at least a two-thirds majority in both chambers. And Democrats would create a panel to find the answer to how long it would take to carry out the initiative.
“This is a puzzle that is hard to put together,” said Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina, the Democrats’ chief budget writer. “If we make people unhappy on that vote, they’re not voting for the budget.”
That’s where the prospect of a shutdown might inspire pragmatic acts over principled stands.
Neither political party nor the governor wants to be blamed for what would be the first-ever state-government stoppage in Washington.
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dospueblos.