Legislators enter session with limited ambitions

Legislature resumes Monday; effort to OK transportation plan emerges as top goal

Staff writersJanuary 12, 2014 

The Legislature will return to Olympia on Monday for a 60-day session that is low on expectations as a divided government enters an election year.

Apart from an opportunity to pass a major transportation tax package – a roughly once-a-decade event – little else of major substance is likely to happen.

Partisan gridlock is one factor limiting ambitions this year. For the second straight year, a Republican-dominated coalition enjoys a narrow advantage of seats in the Senate, and Democrats again wield a large edge in the House while Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee settles in for his second season hoping for more results than he saw in 2013.

The people and issues to watch in the next 60 days:

1. TRANSPORTATION

Business, labor and environmental groups and local governments likely will make a renewed push for a transportation package after a year of unsuccessful negotiations has left the issue in limbo.

Key Democrats and Republicans agree the gasoline tax should be raised by as much as 111/2 cents to pay for road maintenance and major highway projects such as an extension of state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma.

But there are persistent sticking points. Democrats want more money for mass transit while Republicans want the state’s sales-tax revenue from road construction projects dedicated to transportation.

Complicating the debate are problems with the state’s two biggest ongoing projects, the replacement state Route 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington and the Seattle tunnel replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Defective bridge pontoons and a stalled tunnel-boring machine might raise questions about the state Department of Transportation taking on costly new projects.

GOP negotiators also suggested last week it will be harder to reach a deal amid fears that Inslee will create regulations for greener – and perhaps more expensive – motor vehicle fuels. Inslee’s office says that’s just an excuse for inaction. The governor has pledged Washington to adopt a low-carbon fuel standard in an agreement with fellow West Coast governors, but his office said that’s not imminent and would come only after thorough economic and environmental review, if at all.

2. BUDGET

For the first time in years, lawmakers aren’t confronted with a budget shortfall, but very little money is available for any major new initiatives. Lawmakers will try to tweak the two-year budget they passed last year – although Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said lawmakers could get away with no action.

Some Democratic budgeters also have said leaving the budget alone is an option. But House Speaker Frank Chopp wants to find more money for mental health.

And the state Supreme Court told the Legislature last week to move faster toward the court’s mandate to fully fund basic education. The court set an April 30 deadline for lawmakers to submit a funding plan. Justices also suggested lawmakers’ commitment would be in doubt if they don’t add this year to the $1 billion extra they gave school districts in 2013.

But few lawmakers are predicting a major infusion of new money, and Inslee has suggested big changes will have to wait until 2015 when he wants to raise revenue by ending some tax exemptions.

Meanwhile, as much as $44 million in federal aid is at stake as lawmakers consider whether to tweak their teacher-evaluation law to incorporate statewide test scores. Doing nothing would risk losing the state’s waiver exempting it from No Child Left Behind rules.

3. THE GOVERNOR

Inslee won’t lay out his full agenda until his state-of-the-state address Tuesday. His supplemental budget proposal was modest. But he hopes to win passage of a transportation tax package and says his administration is exploring ideas to address climate change.

He also wants to change how the state contracts for mental-health care for the poor. His health proposal would meet a federal mandate by offering private insurance companies the opportunity to bid on work now done mostly by counties, while also starting a phased integration of mental-health treatment with other kinds of medical care.

Inslee will have to hope his second year is more productive than his first, when he was unable to persuade lawmakers to plug tax exemptions, pass a transportation package or approve his pet legislation to boost jobs.

He did have some victories: the Legislature expanded Medicaid and, more recently, handed out tax breaks in a November special session that helped cement the decision by Boeing to build its next-generation airplane, the 777X, in Washington.

4. SENATE MAJORITY COALITION

Two renegade Democrats and 23 Republicans pledged a new era of bipartisan cooperation and results after they seized control of the Senate from majority Democrats in January 2013. But last year’s budget came only after drawn-out negotiations and the threat of a government shutdown, and agreement on most other issues proved out of reach.

Gridlock could continue, now that the coalition led by Medina Democrat Rodney Tom has been strengthened by the addition of a 24th Republican, new Sen. Jan Angel of Port Orchard.

The Senate GOP and the Democratic House are gearing up to consider many of the same kinds of proposals that passed in one chamber and died in the other last year.

Perhaps the biggest early test for the Senate majority will be whether it can muster votes for a transportation package. Senate Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Curtis King has been pushing a Republican version of a package, but it isn’t yet clear whether it has majority support even in his own Majority Coalition Caucus.

5. MEDICAL MARIJUANA

After a citizens’ initiative authorized state-sanctioned marijuana sales, the U.S. Justice Department indicated it would look the other way if the system is as heavily policed as promised. Not so for the state’s long-standing medical-marijuana market, which remains largely unregulated, risking federal intervention.

Now lawmakers will have to decide whether to merge the two systems.

The state Liquor Control Board is calling for mandatory registration for patients and providers; lower caps on how much pot a patient can possess; tighter limits on the medical conditions that make someone eligible for the drug; and an end to so-called collective gardens, requiring patients to buy the drug at the new state-licensed stores with only a small portion of taxes waived.

Medical-marijuana advocates have been vocal in opposition, and some lawmakers are worried about making it too difficult for patients to get their medicine.

6. GUN RIGHTS

Two initiatives to the Legislature take opposite approaches to gun violence, and both are likely to leapfrog the Legislature and land on the November ballot. Under state law, lawmakers have three options: approve the initiatives, send them to the ballot by doing nothing or craft an alternative proposal to appear before voters alongside the citizen proposal.

In this case, there is little middle ground between the camps. One measure requires background checks on virtually all firearm sales; the other pretty much bars an expansion of background checks to gun shows unless the rule reflects a new national standard.

7. SOCIAL ISSUES

Among House-approved bills that appeared to have majority support in the Senate last year were the Washington version of the Dream Act, giving financial aid to youths brought to the country illegally by parents as young children, and a Reproductive Parity Act, which sought to require that health insurance plans covering maternity also covered abortion.

But the majority coalition refused to give the measures a vote, letting conservative chairs of committees bottle up the bills. Democrats are pledging to push those measures again, but Republicans who dominate the Senate majority have given no indication they have changed their position about allowing floor votes.

Expect Democrats to use that as campaign fodder against Senate coalition members up for election in suburban swing districts.

8. BUSINESS CLIMATE IMPROVEMENTS

Just as with social issues, the climb looks steep for business-friendly measures. And just as with social issues, they are campaign ammunition – in this case, against Democrats.

Numerous bills sought by the Senate failed in the Democratic House last year. These include changes to workers’ compensation allowing wider use of structured settlements instead of disability pensions; exempting businesses outside Seattle from the city’s sick leave requirements; and further study of fish consumption patterns before state regulators adopt new water quality standards.

Those issues remain alive in the Senate, but Boeing’s decision to remain in Washington could reduce some pressure for action. And Speaker Chopp shows no sign of allowing a vote on the major workers-compensation proposals.

9. CLIMATE CHANGE

Inslee’s bipartisan climate panel is deadlocked after eight months’ study over what recommendations it can send to the Legislature.

GOP members favor wider use of nuclear power and hydroelectric power. Democrats favor putting a cap and price on carbon, ending the importation of coal-fired electricity into the state, and other steps to encouraging alternative energy and less use of carbon-based fuels.

The governor told reporters last week it is “unlikely” the committee would reach consensus for any action in 2014, but the Legislature could vote to give the panel another year.

The disagreement comes as experts hired by the climate panel concluded the state won’t meet targets set in state law for reducing carbon emissions in 2020, 2030 and 2050.

10. STATE WORKER PENSIONS

Expect fiscal conservatives to make hay of the Boeing Machinists’ vote last month to accept major pension changes. Already one Senate Republican is preparing a bill to end taxpayer-funded pensions for state elected officials.

A proposal that might get more traction than last year is the Senate majority’s call to shift new hires in state government into 401(k) retirement plans and away from fixed-benefit pensions. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom argued last year in favor of shifting away from fixed pensions for state workers.

Democrats are pushing back, arguing that state pension plans are financially solid and that 401(k) plans leave many retirees short. Another factor in their favor is that a transition to a new state pension system wholly based on 401(k)s for new hires could have transition costs for taxpayers.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688
bshannon@theolympian.com
theolympian.com/politics-blog
theolympian.com/state-workers
@bradshannon2
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826
jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.com

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service