Legislature Special Session Kicks Off At High Noon Today

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The end came and went, now lawmakers are going head-to-head over the budget deficit in an overtime special session.

Governor Christine Gregoire ordered state lawmakers to reconvene at high noon today to figure out a way to balance a $2.8 billion gap in the state's budget.

On Thursday night, lawmakers hoisted champagne glasses to cheer the end of their two-month regular session, and now the special session will cost taxpayers roughly $18,000 a day.

In her official proclamation calling for a special session, Governor Gregoire asked legislators to tackle the state's construction and operating budgets, along with some attempts to stimulate jobgrowth. She wants the whole thing done in a week.

Those requests aren't binding, but the general timeframe appearsto be realistic. Despite some visible fractures within theircaucuses toward the end of the regular session, House and SenateDemocratic leaders say they are now very close to an agreement.

"It could be done as quick as a week," said Senate MajorityLeader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. "We're going to come back on Mondayand work every day until we get there."

Using her constitutional power to call a special session asleverage, Gregoire prodded lawmakers to show more progress on anagreement Thursday before signing the paperwork that officiallylaunched an overtime period.

She praised their work so far, and said the extra session willhelp ensure the budget is solved responsibly.

"We are at a turning point in our history and we need to get itright," Gregoire said.

It's not exactly surprising that this year's deficit has pushedOlympia's majority Democrats into extra innings.

Washington's government runs on spending plans that arerewritten every two years, with a tune-up at the halfway mark. TheLegislature gets 105 days to write the big budget in odd-numberedyears, and 60 days to approve the midstream changes.

The 2010 legislative session was one of those "mini" budgetperiods, for changes in the two-year spending plan that runsthrough June 2011. But growing government costs and lower taxcollections following the Great Recession have pushed the roughly$31 billion budget out of balance.

And since legislators already whacked billions from statespending to balance last year's recession-hammered budget, they hadmuch less room to find savings this year.

"We've been working for months on this, believe me," saidHouse Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

But minority Republicans, who have little ability to influencethe outcome, wondered why one-party control at the Capitol stillresulted in gridlock. They also pointed to the estimated $18,000per day it would cost to run a special session, with much of thatcost coming from lawmakers' $90 daily expense reimbursement.

"Every three days we're in session, you could hire a teacher,"said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.

Democratic leaders plan to use a combination of spending cuts,tax increases, federal bailouts and one-time accounting maneuversto close the deficit. But the details are still being negotiated inclosed-door sessions.

The official tax plans from the House and Senate have been about$200 million apart. Brown said there's general agreement to splitthe difference, which would leave a tax package of roughly $800million.

That's some progress, but the key disagreement on taxes has beenwhether to temporarily raise the state's 6.5 percent sales tax. TheSenate has endorsed a third-of-a-cent increase, but House Democratssay they don't have enough support for that plan, and Gregoire alsodoesn't like it.

The two chambers also have to merge their differing ideas aboutwhere to make spending cuts and how much federal money to expect.

If that wasn't enough work, Gregoire and legislative leaders saythey also want to find agreement on some kind of plan to boostemployment.

One such plan is a House idea for selling bonds to spurspecialized construction jobs and capture electricity savings atpublic buildings. It was one of the first significant billsapproved by the House, but has languished in the Senate, with Brownpointing to concerns about adding to state debt.

Gregoire refused to speculate about whether the Legislaturewould wrap up within the week she asked for. But she said a weekendoff should help reboot the discussions and get lawmakers rechargedfor a finish.

"They're tired, and I can see it," she said Thursday night."They'll come back and be better legislators."

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