Washington legislators return to Olympia on Monday expecting more money to flow into state coffers than ever before, but with demands to spend even more.
After a decade in which Republicans reduced large Democratic majorities in the House to a razor-thin margin and even put together a coalition in the House to force a coalition government, Democrats have comfortable majorities in both chambers and a governor pushing a progressive agenda on health care, environmental protection and workplace policies.
But Gov. Jay Inslee doesn’t seem to be positioning himself to be the first governor in nearly a half-century to seek a third term. His sights may be set higher, at the other Washington on the other side of the country. Inslee, for his part, contends that his agenda is driven by the state’s growing population, previously established but expensive improvements to the public school system and programs that were cut drastically in the recession and should now be restored.
“To govern is to choose,” is likely to be Inslee’s mantra for the session. The array of choices will be large and varied starting with the budget, which as lawmakers are wont to say, is really a policy document. Here are some issues to watch in the next few months:
For the first time in history, Washington is on track to spend more than $50 billion in its general operating budget over the next two years. A strong economy means the state can expect to collect about $4 billion more in taxes and fees than it did in the 2017-19 biennium. But Inslee’s budget office says that extra money is more than consumed by the rising cost of public schools, demand for services and proposed raises for state workers. Inslee’s new proposals to expand education, environmental and mental health programs could run another $4 billion. To balance a budget with all those new and existing programs, he’s proposing an increase in the business and occupation tax for service industries, and instituting a capital gains tax on annual investment income of more than $25,000 for an individual or $50,000 for a couple.
What to watch: What tax plans the House and Senate budgets have when they are released in March.
For the first time in nearly a decade, a new Legislature convenes without the threat of Washington Supreme Court sanctions for inadequately supporting public schools hanging over its collective head. Lawmakers approved a massive education overhaul, known as the McCleary fix after the court case, in a marathon 2017 session and adjusted the property tax provisions that accompanied the fix last year.
Legislators acknowledged McCleary was a start, not a finish. They will have proposals to improve or expand special education, early childhood programs, school counseling and workplace training programs, expand training for high school graduates who aren’t seeking jobs that require two- or four-year degrees, and wish lists from the state colleges and universities.
What to watch: Some school districts are struggling under the new property tax rules and will be seeking relief this year, and some legislators will try to lower the majority needed for school construction bonds to 50 percent.
The state faces a federal judge’s order to limit the time a person under arrest and facing court-ordered psychiatric examination can remain in jail before that testing begins at a secure mental health facility. Slots for such “forensic” services are limited at Eastern State and Western State hospitals, but expanding them and upgrading the aging facilities is expensive. Inslee has an extensive multiyear plan to shift in-patient mental and behavioral health services from the two large state hospitals to smaller community-based facilities. Washington also has a shortage of trained mental health professionals available to meet the needs of the state facilities and plans to increase their numbers range from creating a new teaching psychiatric hospital to improving the process for certifying workers from other states interested in coming to Washington.
What to watch: Democratic efforts to increase spending could be met with Republican criticism of how tens of millions of dollars in recent years has been spent without satisfying court orders.
For the first time in several years, there’s no proposal for a financial penalty aimed at cutting the use of fossil fuels, like a carbon tax, carbon fee or cap-and-trade system. Instead, Inslee is proposing a series of regulations and incentives to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase cleaner energy sources like solar and wind generation and electric vehicles. The Legislature already has several proposals to limit the use of plastics, including statewide bans on plastic grocery bags and single-use plastic straws.
The southern resident orca population is dropping to dangerous levels, and to save it Inslee has an array of proposals to clean up the Puget Sound, restrict tourist access to that particular pod and increase the orcas’ main source of food, salmon. Inslee also wants a task force to study whether removing Snake River dams would lead to a significant increase in salmon runs, weighing it against the loss of dams that are not powered by fossil fuels and seeking input from supporters and opponents of breaching the dams.
What to watch: Whether the Legislature will address environmental concerns piecemeal with a series of targeted bills or an omnibus plan.
Voters approved new restrictions on the sale of semi-automatic rifles and requirements for safe storage of firearms in the home. But lawmakers could consider other gun-related legislation, including a bill to allow the Washington State Patrol to destroy guns it confiscates, a ban on magazines that carry more than 10 rounds, a ban on untraceable guns created by 3D printers and a proposal to allow schools to allow employees to carry firearms on campus after an approved training program.
What to watch: House Democrats had slim majorities in recent sessions without the votes to pass gun-control measures with no GOP support. Their new majority is larger and fueled by progressive freshmen who may be more likely to vote yes.
Two initiatives – one to make $30 the limit once again for vehicle license tabs and one to re-establish some affirmative action policies – probably have enough signatures to be sent to the Legislature. If lawmakers don’t pass them, they go on the November ballot; if they think they have a better alternative, the original and the revised versions go on the ballot. They will try to amend last year’s initiative on police use of deadly force, which voters passed in November.
What to watch: The deadly force alternative may have the two-thirds majority needed to amend a newly passed initiative. The House is set to hold a hearing on it the first day of the session. Initiative 1000, the affirmative action proposal, might get a vote. Initiative 976, the car tab measure, probably will go to the ballot, although the Legislature may consider separate bills that cover some of the same ground, like the motor vehicle excise tax levied in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties for Sound Transit.