OLYMPIA – Some years, the Legislature faces huge issues, spends months in partisan wrangling and needs extra weeks or even months to complete some tasks.
2020 might not be one of them – except for some partisan wrangling, which is almost inevitable.
It’s not that the state is completely free of problems that require lawmakers’ attention. Time and circumstances, however, suggest they might instead settle for some incremental adjustments on many fronts, rather than trying to push through a revolutionary change on a major issue.
Emergencies get attention, but ongoing problems often are studied with hopes of finding a solution that can be discussed in next year’s longer session.
In the 60 days allotted to this even-year session, budgets are usually adjusted, not completely rewritten. New taxes might be mentioned, but with a strong economy generating more revenue than projected, it may be difficult to tackle something so controversial in advance of the fall elections.
This particular session might also spend time deciding whether to expel or otherwise sanction Spokane Valley Rep. Matt Shea over a report that alleges he was involved in “domestic terrorism” and may face pressure to get rid of one of its parliamentary sleights of hand, the use of “title only” bills to push compromises on budgets and other complicated issues through the Legislature on short notice.
Here are five things to watch in the 2020 Legislature when it starts today:
Lawmakers start their session with a big transportation question mark. Voters approved Initiative 976 in November, which removes some of the taxes and fees motorists pay when renewing their license plate tabs. That creates a $454 million hole in the transportation budget, and some $4 billion over the next six years for state and local projects combined.
The initiative is on hold by a court order. Those fees still are being collected, but held in escrow.
Republicans contend the Legislature should listen to voters and possibly even pass the initiative as a bill to end the dispute. They want to fill the hole in the transportation budget by moving sales tax money collected on car and truck sales out of the general fund , which covers most state programs and salaries. That would require some reductions in state services in other areas.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said last week it was good to talk about ways to create more flexibility for the transportation budget and “have everything on the table,” but he’s reluctant to take money away from the general fund.
Gov. Jay Inslee doesn’t support such a shift. He has put some of the big highway projects on a temporary hold so the Legislature can rearrange the budget it passed last April. But a long-term solution might have to wait for next year, after the lawsuit over whether I-976 is constitutional makes its way to the Washington Supreme Court and the justices render a verdict. Such a decision would presumably settle whether the fees and taxes can continue to be collected or spent, and if anything collected after the initiative was certified in December has to be given back.
Inslee has proposed a supplemental budget with no new or increased taxes. Some legislators are calling for a capital gains tax, either to pay for new programs such as efforts to fight homelessness, or as part of an overhaul of the state’s tax system which is heavily dependent on the sales, property, and business and occupation taxes.
Speaker-designate Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said last week that while she has been a supporter of a capital gains tax in the past, she’s not ready yet to support it in the short session.
“We’ll have to see if the work has been done on that, and if folks are motivated for what the investments might be for that,” she said.
If the state approves any new taxes, it should be revenue-neutral by being offset by reductions elsewhere, Billig said.
Republicans aren’t likely to support any tax increases. Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said lawmakers need to “listen to the hardworking taxpayers and job creators” and take notice of the fact that that voters turned thumbs down to nine of 12 taxes the Legislature passed and were put on the November ballot as advisory votes.
While Inslee isn’t calling for new taxes, he is proposing that the Legislature take some $319 million out of the state’s emergency reserve, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to fight homelessness. That would take a supermajority, and members of both parties are leery of tapping that reserve. Then they should find the money elsewhere to fight homelessness, the governor said.
Inslee wants the state to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expand the number of electric vehicle charging stations and increase the number of zero-emissions vehicles. He also wants the Legislature to set up a Clean Fuel Standard starting next January that would require producers to gradually cut the amount of those gases and their intensity with cleaner or alternative fuels.
A version of the Clean Fuel Standard passed the House last year on a party-line vote, but faced significant opposition from business groups and stalled in the Senate. It will get another hearing in the Transportation committees, with Inslee pushing the state to join California, Oregon and British Columbia, which have each passed a version of the standard.
Most Democrats agree with Inslee that there’s a climate crisis and, as Jinkins put it, need to “figure out what we want to do and what we can do.” Republicans are likely to support the part of Inslee’s plans that call for programs to “sequester” more carbon in forests and farms. Schoesler said the Legislature should “avoid wasting time on foolish decisions like breaching Snake River dams.”
Attorney General Bob Ferguson and some gun safety groups have called for a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles and large capacity magazines. Those proposals likely have enough support to get hearings, but maybe not enough to become law.
Jinkins, who previously was the chairwoman of the committee overseeing gun legislation, said last week that the Legislature passed a series of laws on gun safety to help prevent domestic violence and suicide. The most important thing for lawmakers this year might be making sure those laws, particularly those that require better background checks, work properly.
Republicans will be leery of anything they view as conflicting with federal and state constitution amendments on gun rights. “It’s not gun safety, it’s gun control and gun seizure,” Schoesler said.
The Washington Supreme Court told legislators shortly before Christmas that they were subject to the state’s Public Records Act, much the way city and county elected officials are. The court ruled against lawmakers in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of the state’s news media, including the Associated Press and The Spokesman-Review.
The court left lawmakers an opening, saying they are in charge of creating exemptions. But their leaders said last week they didn’t expect any action in that direction; instead they’ll spend time setting up a process to respond to records requests that have been coming into their offices, which the court ruled are covered as “agencies” under the law.
One exemption that might be debated, however, is a request from public employees to exempt their birthdates from certain state records that can be released under the law. The Freedom Foundation routinely requests those records in an ongoing effort to persuade state employees to withdraw from their union and stop paying dues, and the court has said they are subject to the law at this point.
The unions argue that releasing birthdates make the employees vulnerable to hackers and identity theft.
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