OLYMPIA – A new year, a new Legislature, a new administration – and maybe some new ideas to solve some old, familiar problems.
That may be the best way to sum up the Washington legislative session that opens at noon Monday and probably gets down to business in earnest sometime Thursday after ceremonial swearings-in, speeches from an outgoing and an incoming governor, inaugural festivities and settling the question of who’s in charge in the state Senate.
Legislators face a budget headed into the red, an education system with many critics, an economy with high unemployment and more roads that need fixing than the current taxes can pay for.
The state has an array of programs, policies and personnel that, left unchanged, would cost more than the state expects to take in over the next two years. Figuring out how much money will come in and go out over the next two years involves a certain amount of guesswork, but by most estimates, it has a gap of about $900 million between projected revenue and the cost of existing programs. Revenue is expected to rise compared to the last two years, but costs for everything in the current budget would rise faster.
The gap more than doubles, to about $2 billion, when people start talking about additions to the state’s public education system to meet a state Supreme Court mandate.
“I think it’s all about the budget,” Spokane Democrat Andy Billig, who shifts from the House to the Senate this year, said last week.
He and some other Democrats talk about a “balanced approach” that would mix budget cuts with some new revenue. Gov. Chris Gregoire suggested that in a budget proposal last month, but she won’t be around to fight for her tax proposals, which include extending the sales tax to such junk food products as candy and soda. Her replacement, Jay Inslee, campaigned on closing the gap without new taxes and last week repeated that intention.
House Republicans, who talk about “sustainability” for the state’s budget, are pushing a plan they’ve suggested unsuccessfully before: Create a separate budget for public schools, pay for those programs first, then decide what the state can afford with what’s left. That would help meet the constitutional requirement that education is the state’s paramount duty and satisfy the state Supreme Court, which is demanding the Legislature do more to fulfill that mandate, said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, counters that some programs outside the education budget, such as nutrition and health care, have an impact on schools because hungry or sick children make poor students. Splitting out the public school programs doesn’t really make sense if the state is trying to improve education, he argues.
“No one’s talking about cutting those programs,” said Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane. “We all know education’s the best ladder out of poverty.”
The budget starts in the Senate, where any discussion of restructuring the format of spending plans will likely take a back seat to the unprecedented arrangement to control the chamber. Although Democrats hold 26 of the Senate’s 49 seats, two of their members have joined with the 23 Republicans to form a “coalition majority” to run the floor and key committees.
The coalition will focus on “jobs, education and the budget,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, of Bellevue, a onetime Republican who switched to being a Democrat. Members want a budget “focused on middle-class values.”
While Tom and many Republicans believe the state needs to cut spending, Sen. Ed Murray, of Seattle, the Democratic leader who controlled the budget committee for the last two years, said the state needs to consider ways to increase revenue. “Cutting alone does not give you a sustainable budget,” he said.
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said partisan wrangling in the Senate could be a “three-ring circus” but could also produce an unexpected benefit. “It could make for a middle-of-the-road budget that nobody’s going to like” but members of both parties can support, he said.
He doubts, though, that either chamber will pass a significant tax increase: “Where are you going to get two-thirds?” he asked, noting the current supermajority needed to raise taxes.
Both chambers’ Ways and Means committees will begin budget hearings this month, but real budget proposals – the kind that come with charts, graphs and spreadsheets that count debits and credits – will wait until after the state gets its next revenue forecast on March 20.
There will be plenty to occupy the legislators’ attention in the meantime.
Marijuana: Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said there could be efforts to reconcile the state’s marijuana laws passed by voters – one for medical use and one for recreational use. But like tax increases, anything that changes last year’s initiative on recreational use for adults will need a two-thirds supermajority.
Child sex abuse: Padden also expects hearings on a bill to remove or at least lengthen the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases, which for several years passed in the House but was bottled up by Senate Democrats.
Guns: Gun safety and gun control could also generate proposals, both to reduce access to semi-automatic weapons and high-volume clips and to remove gun-free designations from schools. Kretz, the Wauconda Republican, said he has constituents who believe the gun-free designation is almost like an invitation to people who want to inflict maximum mayhem, but “I’ve got some real hesitation talking about arming teachers.”
The sides are so polarized he wonders if anything can pass.
Wolves: Another hot topic for Eastern Washington will be removing protections for wolves. It will probably meet with resistance from Puget Sound legislators, and Kretz might counter with a proposal to restore wolf populations to the San Juan Islands. “I don’t want to deprive the West Side of the pleasure of having wolves,” he said.
Small business: Parker said he wants to concentrate on helping small businesses get started and grow. One way to do it, he believes, is “streamlining the permitting process as we climb out of the Great Recession.”
Human trafficking: Parker also expects some efforts to further crack down with tougher criminal penalties for human trafficking that lures young men and women into prostitution.
Health care: Democrats and Republicans are likely to clash over the state’s efforts to comply with new federal laws on health reform, particularly the expansion of Medicaid that will start out with full federal funding but will require some state money later this decade. The majority coalition in the Senate also questions the cost of the health insurance exchange the state is setting up.
Marcus Riccelli, a former Senate aide just elected to a Spokane House seat, said his hope is to pass a bipartisan budget that “continues to move our community and our state forward … protects the most vulnerable and meets our obligations on education.”
But, the Democratic representative added, he’s also a realist. With possible turmoil in the Senate it’s difficult to look into a crystal ball and come to any conclusions. So his more practical goal is to work with members of both parties in the Spokane-area delegation to protect programs that have received state support in the past, like Crosswalk, the Spokane Guilds School and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, and try to find money to operate the new medical school program being set up at the Riverpoint Campus.