Washington legislators leave plenty to next year’s session
OLYMPIA – The Legislature closed up shop with seven minutes before its constitutionally mandated midnight stopping time Thursday, ending a short session that was short on expectations and, many would argue, short on accomplishments.
After passing an updated operating budget that even supporters said contained plenty of things to dislike, a couple of bills on many legislators’ priority lists were saved from oblivion late Thursday and moved back and forth between chambers with admirable speed.
Military veterans were granted in-state tuition at Washington’s public colleges and universities, regardless of how long they’ve lived in the state. A $40 fee homebuyers pay to file their documents, which pays for programs to fight homelessness but was due to expire this year, was extended until 2019.
Meanwhile, the subject getting the most attention seemed to be deciding what medical procedures can be performed by phlebotomists, medical assistants who draw blood. A phlebotomist bill pingponged back and forth across the Rotunda and showed up on one floor or the other eight times in the last eight days, as the chambers tweaked the bill with amendments. It eventually had to be untweaked because the wrong amendment was added – and approved – before people noticed, so that amendment had to be subtracted and replaced, prompting three roll-call votes on the last day.
“I didn’t know what a phlebotomist was until today,” deadpanned Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.
Early in the session, the Legislature had opened up some state college aid to Washington high school students who came to the country illegally but have grown up here. Democrats, who called it the Dream Act, listed it as one of their top priorities at the start of the session. Senate Republicans reworked the bill to add some $5 million to the scholarship fund, which already has a long line of waiting applicants, and called it the Real Hope Act. With supporters using both titles, it passed last month.
At a postsession, after-midnight news conference Friday, Inslee called the law a highlight of the session, calling the ceremony to sign the bill with many newly eligible students looking on “a day I’m going to remember for a long time.” He also applauded the Legislature for raising the number of credits for high school graduation to 24 from 20.
But, he added, “there’s a lot left undone.”
Also on the “Done” list was a budget update of nearly $66 million to the state’s $34 billion general operating fund. The supplemental budget doesn’t raise taxes or expand tax breaks. It doesn’t give public school employees a cost-of-living raise that Inslee and legislative Democrats wanted. It doesn’t allow colleges and universities to raise tuition next fall. Introduced and passed between lunch and dinner on the final day, it does spend an extra $58 million on school books and supplies, more on mental health, more on corrections.
Partially done, said Inslee, who thought the Legislature should pony up at least $200 million more for schools as a down payment on some $3 billion it will need to find next year.
Among items on the “Undone” list:
• A transportation package that would raise $8 billion or more, with higher gasoline taxes and transportation fees, to build some transportation “megaprojects,” increase maintenance on existing roads and bridges and provide some money to local mass transit agencies. A priority for Inslee since his 2013 inauguration, it was the subject of a statewide “listening tour” last fall by the predominantly Republican coalition that controls the Senate.
Although one package passed the House last year, the Senate’s separate plan introduced late in this session never came to a vote. Senate Republicans blamed Democratic counterparts for not offering supporting votes and said Inslee should promise not to impose low-carbon fuel standards, which could raise the cost of gasoline. Inslee said Republicans kept changing their negotiating position on items like the sales tax on transportation projects.
“If excuses were money, the Majority Coalition would all be multimillionaires,” he said, pointing to a chart on changes in the negotiation stance. Senate Republicans in turn criticized him for breaking “the confidentiality of the negotiations” and released charts showing Democrats also changed negotiating positions.
• Efforts to merge the state’s medical and recreational marijuana systems. Few issues attracted as many diverse and passionate adherents as various proposals to put limits on the 15-year-old medical marijuana system and the dispensaries that serve it.
Legislators had plans to phase out dispensaries, cut the amount of marijuana patients could possess or grow, require yearly recommendations from their doctor and establish a registry that was mandatory in some versions and voluntary in others. State officials said all were necessary to keep the federal government from cracking down on medical marijuana as the state tries to bring the new recreational system online.
The most strident opponents wanted no changes at all, while other patient groups were willing to negotiate different items while trying to get exemptions from the high taxes recreational pot will carry. Disagreements on whether and how to split that tax revenue with local governments killed the proposals in the final days.
Inslee said he was “taken aback by this last-minute resistance that sort of popped up” and expects the issue to come up again next year.
• The Reproductive Parity Act. For the second year, this was a top priority for Democrats. It would have required almost all insurance plans in the state that offer maternity care to also cover abortion services. Supporters say it’s necessary to allow women to make their own choices about their pregnancies; opponents say those who have moral objections to abortion shouldn’t be required to pay premiums to an insurance company that pays for someone else’s abortion. Like last year, impassioned people from both sides testified at a House committee hearing, and it passed that chamber. Unlike last year, it didn’t even get a hearing in a Senate committee.
• Higher minimum wage. Although Washington currently has the nation’s highest minimum wage thanks to a voter-approved initiative, Inslee called for raising it in January but didn’t specify by how much. A Democratic bill that would have raised it to $12 an hour over three years died in House committee; a Republican bill to drop it for teen workers died in another House committee.
The 60-day session in an even-numbered year isn’t designed for big policy shifts or major budget changes when the state’s revenue picture is stable, many legislators said. Inslee seemed uninterested Friday morning in calling a special session for any of the things left undone.
A comprehensive budget rewrite with larger investments in public schools, and the other items on everyone’s undone lists, will be pushed into next year’s 105-day session and a Legislature that could be reconfigured by the fall elections.