Republican leaders in the state Senate pushed back on Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget and tax proposals, addressed homelessness concerns in Spokane and laid out their priorities for the legislative session in a wide-ranging interview earlier this month.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, the Ritzville Republican who has led the GOP in the state Senate for more than a year, called Inslee’s requested tax hikes to pay for an additional $9.7 billion in proposed spending “a radical increase that may not even be sustainable.”
“There is absolutely no reason for a 20 percent growth in spending this biennium,” Schoesler said in an interview with colleague Sen. Shelly Short that can be heard in its entirety as part of the Spokesman-Review’s Newsmakers podcast. “Just doing nothing, we gain $5 billion more than what we thought we were going to when we left in Olympia. This should be the best of times, the easiest of times, to budget.”
Short, from Addy, will step into the role of Republican floor leader in the next session. Both the Senate and House of Representatives will be controlled by Democrats, with Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane taking up the mantle of majority leader in the Senate when the session kicks off next month.
Short also said Inslee’s budget was too ambitious and pointed to potential dissension in the Democratic ranks on the proposal.
“Sen. (Christine) Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island) is our budget writer from the Democratic Senate caucus, and she has even said that the governor’s proposal is a very tall order,” Short said. “She does not even believe there’s going to be support in her caucus for what the governor’s asking.”
Rolfes told the Seattle Times after Inslee’s budget was unveiled earlier this month it was “a great blueprint,” but added that the plan was “probably more ambitious than the Legislature will be able to pass.”
Among Inslee’s requests is an additional $1.1 billion to protect orca populations in the Puget Sound, with much of that money going toward reducing culverts and adding more spillage over the state’s dams to improve populations of salmon, a staple of the orca’s diet. Both Republicans said there were more cost-effective ways to address the problem.
“I think it’s an excuse for a lot more spending, and it goes so far as to target Snake River dams, which provide the green energy for a greener energy future,” Schoesler said.
Short said much of the problem comes from pollution that occurs in Western Washington, specifically urban King County, and that issue should be resolved locally before considering costlier strategies.
“If you think of all the rainfall they get, it’s got to be a challenge to manage that,” Short said of the pollution problem. “But it’s their job to manage it. All of that raw sewage dumps into the Puget Sound. To me, that should be one of the first steps.”
Inslee has been fielding questions about a potential presidential run for at least the past year, amid much public scrutiny of President Donald Trump. Schoesler threw water on those plans.
“I think the odds of Jay Inslee being president are about as good as my odds being governor,” Schoesler quipped.
Both lawmakers said that a priority in the next session should be the state’s commitment to mental health services. Schoesler said that didn’t mean government should be responsible for providing those services.
“We know that, quite likely, some of our for-profit, not-for-profit hospitals could divert a portion or an expansion to mental health,” Schoesler said. “They don’t have to be state employees.”
City lawmakers and the mayor’s office have been working together to unearth additional funding for warming shelters to address the issue of homelessness in Spokane, and officials are working toward opening a new transitional shelter to replace lost beds at the House of Charity shelter that limited its capacity at the end of the past summer. Short said she’s working on legislation to introduce this session that will ease some of the restrictions imposed by the Growth Management Act to allow a greater variety of housing stock to be built.
“You think of how local governments do their urban growth projections,” Short said. “We need to make sure there’s some flexibility in how they do that, so they can really tailor it to on-the-ground, so Eastern Washington’s going to look different than city development in Western Washington.”
Schoesler said he preferred policy fixes to increased spending in addressing the issue.
“Just throwing money at it isn’t going to solve it,” he said.
The Spokane City Council also took action this month after two years of discussions on a local regulatory plan for ride-sharing companies such as Lyft and Uber, bringing those firms more in line with the requirements placed on taxi firms. Schoesler said that was backwards thinking and doesn’t believe the Legislature should act to impose statewide regulations of a similar type on the companies.
“I would hope we don’t,” Schoesler said. “Really, I think, Uber and Lyft have disrupted traditional thinking with affordability and choice.”
The legislative session begins Jan. 14. With Schoesler in charge of the Republicans and Billig serving as the chamber’s majority leader of the Democrats, the two top positions in the state Senate will be held by Eastern Washington lawmakers.
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