OLYMPIA – The 2014 session of the Washington Legislature may be one of short duration, small tweaks and low expectations.
Legislators will continue last year’s struggles over roads and abortion. They may try to reconcile two very different sets of laws over recreational and medicinal marijuana. They will listen to ideas to trim tax loopholes, boost jobs, improve schools and bolster pensions.
But they don’t actually have to do anything.
The state’s budget picture is not particularly rosy, but for the first time in several years it is not bleak. A bit more revenue is projected to be in the pipeline. It’s not enough for major new initiatives but enough for some “tweaking” of programs to accommodate increases in schoolchildren, college programs and mental health patients, if legislators can reach a consensus.
If not, the Legislature could quit after its constitutionally allotted 60 days without making any changes to last year’s biennial operating budget, and any extra revenue would just go into reserve accounts. It would be the first time the Legislature finished on time, without needing a special session to cobble together a budget, since 2009.
“You could operate without a supplemental budget,” Mark Schoesler, the Senate Republican leader from Ritzville, said last week at a legislative preview sponsored by the Associated Press. “It doesn’t hurt to have a little extra money in the bank.”
Changes to the budget will be limited, focusing on unfinished business from 2013, said House Democratic Leader Pat Sullivan, of Covington. “We think at this time we should have a supplemental budget.”
Gov. Jay Inslee’s “hold steady, get ready” budget calls for modest changes, with most increases tied to higher demand for services: an extra 10,200 kids in public schools, more students qualifying for college aid, more felons sentenced to prison and more mental health patients needing services.
Here are some of the key topics that will occupy legislators for the next 60 days.
Facing a state Supreme Court order to live up to its constitutional requirement to make public education the state’s “paramount duty,” the Legislature added about $1 billion to kindergarten through high school programs and expenses last year. Last Thursday, in a review of the steps taken toward reaching that duty, the court said the Legislature had made some progress but is not on track to implement key reforms by the 2017-18 school year. Total cost of all those reforms is estimated at $5 billion, but big changes are more likely next year, in a 105-day session when a two-year budget is written.
The Legislature was ordered to submit a plan by April 30 for fully implementing the reforms, with a schedule for phasing in the money the changes will require.
Expect many references to “McCleary,” the name of the landmark court decision ordering the Legislature to meet its obligation to schools, throughout the session.
Most legislators agree that “something” must be done about transportation, but they failed to reach a consensus last year even though Inslee said it was a priority during the regular session, the two succeeding special sessions and the interim leading up to the third special session.
There’s still no agreement on a package of new highway and bridge projects, increased maintenance, public transit and reforms to the way the state plans and builds projects. It would require a bump of 10 cents or more to the gasoline tax. Democrats who control the House say they passed a package last year and it’s up to Senate Republicans to pass a plan, too, so the differences can be negotiated. Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he doesn’t yet have a package nailed down, and without that he can’t predict how many votes it could get from the mainly Republican coalition that controls the Senate.
One Spokane-area Republican, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, said he’ll only vote for a package that has full funding for the North Spokane Corridor. Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he can’t promise to vote for it even then.
Complicating any effort to sell a gas tax to the public are cost overruns on a couple of megaprojects in Seattle: the tunnel being dug to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the state Route 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington.
The state has conflicting laws for medical marijuana, which voters approved in 1998, and recreational marijuana, which they approved in 2012. The Liquor Control Board, which controls the latter but not the former, has proposed clamping down on medical marijuana with a state registry of patients, closing of dispensaries and a requirement to buy the heavily taxed pot at recreational stores.
Legislative leaders and Inslee aren’t backing all the board’s recommendations, although the governor said last week, “I do think it’s important that we reconcile the two systems.”
Medical marijuana supporters – which include a mix of progressive Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans in and out of the Legislature, as well as patients and those who operate dispensaries – will fight all of the board’s recommendations.
New recreational marijuana businesses are looking for help on banking so they don’t have to conduct all their business, and pay their taxes, in cash.
Democratic leaders in both chambers list the Reproductive Parity Act as “unfinished business” from last year. The bill essentially would require any insurance plan that covers childbirth – and most do because of the Affordable Care Act – to also cover abortion. It passed the House but was held in a Senate committee, and some members of the Majority Coalition Caucus who said they support the bill rejected parliamentary efforts to bring it to the floor for a vote.
A House committee could have a hearing as early as this week on a new version of the bill, and the full chamber would likely pass it again quickly.
Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, of Maury Island, called a Senate vote on the Reproductive Parity Act an “absolute must” for the session. But at least one yes vote was replaced by a no vote when Republican Jan Angel ousted Democrat Nathan Schlicher in a special election last November.
One other “must” for Democrats is a vote on a proposal to extend state college aid to the children of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States with their parents, grew up and graduated from Washington high schools but are not citizens. Like the Reproductive Parity Act, the bill, often called the DREAM Act although it’s different than the federal legislation of the same name, passed the House but was not allowed out of a Senate committee.
Inslee is expected to call for studies of low-carbon fuels in his State of the State speech Tuesday, with a thorough evaluation of their costs and benefit. He believes there is “overwhelming support” among the public to do something about climate change.
Republicans are leery of anything that could add to the cost of gasoline, especially if a transportation package is going to propose a jump in the gas tax. The state should focus on the good news about the environment rather than panicking over it, Senate GOP leader Schoesler said: “We already have one of the cleanest states in the world.”
The Legislature is likely to be presented with two conflicting initiatives on guns. Initiative 594 would extend background checks to most private sales while Initiative 591 would only allow an expansion in background checks if there was “a unified national standard.” Both have almost 100,000 more signatures than required for certification.
The Legislature couldn’t reach a consensus on gun proposals last year and probably doesn’t have one now, Sullivan said. The initiatives will likely get a committee hearing but no vote, which will send them to the November ballot.