State budget talks now focused on smaller details

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Negotiators in Olympia have agreed to the large components of a new state budget but continued to work Tuesday through the smaller details.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said there have been no setbacks in the talks and that lawmakers are close to agreement on a final deal on a two-year, $33 billion spending plan that would avert a government shutdown next week. Inslee had said Monday that a deal was imminent and had hoped it would have been finalized within hours.

Democratic Rep. Reuven Carlyle cautioned that negotiators "remain a part on a handful of substantive" matters. He said there's still a possibility that a stalemate would trigger a shutdown, but he was optimistic that wouldn't happen.

"I think it's becoming more and more unlikely," Carlyle said.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said that as of Tuesday afternoon there were still "four important issues to resolve," though he wouldn't go into detail on what those were.

"We're getting there," he said. "We're making real progress."

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom agreed, saying that lawmakers are "so close."

"We'll be out of here as fast as we can," he said. "But more important than expediency is getting the job done right."

After negotiators agree to a new spending plan, it may take a couple more days to go through the process of passing the budget through the Legislature. Smith said the governor's office hopes the Legislature will be able to finish that job before state workers go home for the weekend.

The Democratic-controlled House and the Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, including Tom, have been locked in budget negotiations for several weeks. They are currently in a second overtime legislative session after adjourning both a regular 105-day legislative session and a 30-day special session without reaching a budget deal.

More than 25,000 workers would be temporarily laid off starting Monday if there is no new budget by then, and thousands of workers already have received notifications that it could happen. The state believes 34 agencies will have to cease operations next week while another 24 agencies would be partially shut down.

Of the 1,500 Fish and Wildlife employees, 1,400 will be laid off. The department's deputy chief said that means Fish and Wildlife workers won't be able to help if a rogue bear or cougar is plaguing a neighborhood, and residents won't be able to buy fishing licenses.

"Essentially, a lot of natural resources will be left unguarded," said Deputy Chief Mike Cenci. "And the layer of public safety that we provide as a general authority law enforcement agency, that'll be absent too."

Because there will be no workers to inspect shellfish quality, the state plans to shut down all shellfish harvesting if a budget deal isn't reached.

The Health Department will also shut down its state labs, which means there would be no testing for TB or West Nile. Anything other than newborn baby checks, bio-terrorism and rabies will be scrapped.

"Almost anything you can think of that requires a health lab test is going to be put on hold," said Tim Church, spokesman for the Department of Health.

Inslee has also pushed for the passage of a transportation revenue package, and on Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled a $10 billion package that includes a 10.5-cent increase in the gas tax, with 6 cents of the increase taking effect on August 1. A House vote on that package was expected to take place on Wednesday.

The proposal includes $3.2 billion for several state road projects, including State Road 167, Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass and a replacement bridge that would extend Interstate 5 over the Columbia River. It also includes more than $1 billion for maintenance of highways and bridges.

The effort to replace the bridge connecting Portland with Vancouver, Wash., has encountered obstacles in the Senate, where several members are opposed to the Columbia River Crossing proposal in its current form. They say it is too low and should not include light rail transit, and are concerned about costs.