OLYMPIA – The Legislature’s final day of the 2015 session went smoothly, in contrast to many of the 175 days that preceded it.
The House moved swiftly to pass three bills on its agenda: a two-year delay of a biology test high school seniors must pass to get diplomas; a long list of transportation projects to be built with the 11.9 cent increase in the gasoline tax motorists will see over the next year; and authority to sell bonds to pay for some of those projects.
“It hasn’t been easy, but nothing is easy that is worth doing,” Rep. Judy Clibbon, D-Mercer Island, said in urging lawmakers to approve the bonds. They needed 59 yes votes for a supermajority, and they got that with four votes to spare.
A few members of the Senate – which passed its remaining legislation Thursday – waited across the rotunda until the final gavels on the longest continuous session in state history came down shortly after noon.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who was flanked by House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said no one was pleased with how long the Legislature took to complete its work.
“This was a tough session but it produced some darn good results,” he said.
He echoed some of the highlights Senate Republicans listed Thursday when they held their traditional post-session assessment a day early.
With the state under a Supreme Court order to improve public schools, the Legislature added $1.3 billion to the education budget and also gave teachers and other school employees raises. The state still must report to the court on its progress by July 27, but Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said education consumes 47 percent of the state operating budget, the largest share since the early 1980s when Republican John Spellman was governor.
“We have made two very significant steps forward,” Inslee said. “There will need to be further steps.”
“We’ve been about 30 years getting into this problem,” Schoesler said. “It’s going to take a little more time to get out.”
Tuition at all state colleges will be cut by 5 percent this year, and by 10 percent to 15 percent next year at the four-year institutions, an idea proposed and championed by Senate Republicans, who got the other caucuses to come around after it was scaled back from cuts as large as 25 percent.
Still, they are the first tuition cuts in the state in anyone’s memory, Schoesler said.
The state expanded mental health care, early learning programs for preschool children, mentor programs for teachers and help for homeless youth. Republicans were happy that was accomplished without new taxes; Inslee said the budget did require new revenue, primarily from an improving economy and job growth.
The new revenue from existing taxes meant Inslee and some Democrats could put aside their call for a capital gains tax, although it could come up in the future as the Legislature wrestles with problems with the property tax levy system.
Both parties, in both chambers, did approve the increase in the gasoline tax, as well as increases to some vehicle fees and a $5 fee for studded tires sold after July 1, 2016. Inslee already has signed legislation with the new taxes and fees and is expected to sign the bills passed Friday in the next week.
The package of highway, bridge, transit and ferry projects was regularly described as a jobs producer and has been on Inslee’s to-do list since taking office in 2013. Late last year he proposed a tax on carbon producers to help pay for it, rather than an increase in the gasoline tax, but gave up that stance as the session dragged into overtime.
He’s not giving up on a tax on carbon production that would help the environment, Inslee said, but unless Senate Republicans change their opposition or lose control of that chamber, it may require a citizens initiative to become law.
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