Special session kicks off to address projected state deficit

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Washington lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday for a special legislative session to address a projected budget deficit of more than $1.2 billion for the next two-year budget, plus a court-required increase in funding for the state's education system.

A mostly empty Senate was gaveled into order Monday morning, as was the House, which then adjourned to Tuesday. Most lawmakers in the Senate weren't expected to return until the afternoon when a special session resolution was to be passed in that chamber.

Budget writers in the House and Senate have met a few times since the regular session adjourned on April 28. But with no deal reached during their two-week interim, the special legislative session that started Monday could take its full allotted 30 days, if not longer.

Gov. Jay Inslee has said that even while budget writers keep working toward a deal, he wants lawmakers to address policy issues during the overtime session, including a measure to strengthen the state's impaired driving laws in the wake of recent fatal accidents.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said that the main focus during special session needs to be on the budget.

"The public expects us to get our work done, and that needs to be our primary focus," he said. "The sooner the better."

No floor votes were expected this week, but a few committee hearings had been scheduled, including a Tuesday Senate Law & Justice Committee meeting where a vote was expected on the DUI legislation.

The $1.2 billion deficit for the budget ending in mid-2015 does not include additional money needed for a court-ordered requirement that lawmakers increase funding to basic education. The House and Senate have taken different approaches to balance state spending and increase funding for education, with the biggest difference centered on whether to raise revenue from extending taxes or eliminating tax breaks.

The Senate is controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, and they passed a budget during the regular session that balances spending without new taxes, relying on cuts to social programs and fund transfers. The House's budget would increase tax revenue by roughly $1 billion over the next two years, including a permanent extension of business taxes to raise more than half a billion dollars. The plan would also repeal tax breaks for travel agents, bottled water and fuel.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said that a big sticking point still is the discussion of revenue, but negotiations continue.

"I think it's obvious there's been progress made from where we were when we left here," he said. "You have to start somewhere."