Washington state’s 2018 legislative session is nearly upon us, and it figures to be a busy one.
When lawmakers convene Monday, Jan. 8, for a 60-day stint at the Capitol, they will have to contend with court orders to improve the education and mental health systems, a complex debate over a construction budget and more.
Eyes will be trained on Democrats and their newfound majority in the state Senate. The party recently won a special election in the Redmond area, ending a half-decade of Republican control in the chamber.
The win also gives them total power in state government. Democrats already controlled the House and governor’s office.
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Their lead is narrow — just one vote in the Senate — leaving Republicans with sway to make a mark. But Democrats will have considerably more muscle to push through legislation and write a supplemental state budget than they had in years past.
Here’s what to look for as the session progresses:
1. Will majority equal power?
We know Democrats will control the Legislature for the first time since 2012. We don’t know exactly how they will wield that power.
Will the party pursue an aggressive agenda that will rally more centrist members to Democratic priorities such as gun regulation, a trailblazing tax on carbon emissions and a boost of spending on K-12 education?
Or will those same centrists dictate a more narrow course of action likely to win more bipartisan support?
One carbon-tax proposal has already been subject to those dynamics.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee made a plan to charge polluters the centerpiece of an effort to increase state revenue for education and environmental issues, but he hasn’t offered details on the size and scope of the plan yet.
Such a tax is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of many Republicans, who have often objected to carbon taxes. Many say taxing carbon emissions would not provide enough help to the environment to justify the job losses they predict would result from the implementation of the new tax.
The idea also might find resistance from some Democrats.
On Thursday, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, a Seattle Democrat, alluded to the challenge of finding enough votes to pass a carbon tax, saying the chances of lawmakers approving one this year are “not the greatest, shall we say.” Party leaders also have maintained a supplemental budget and other major legislation will need bipartisan support.
Still, many Democrats are thinking big and believe a carbon tax has a chance to pass.
One wild card might push skeptics of such a policy to the negotiating table: the threat of a 2018 initiative by left-wing groups. Supporters are already gearing up for one.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who now chairs the Senate’s Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, wrote in a blog post he believes the Legislature should “step forward this year and pass comprehensive carbon pricing and energy investment legislation.”
Carlyle predicted it wouldn’t be easy.
“The Olympia route inherently means complex negotiations above purity,” he said.
That could be a theme in 2018 for Democrats on many issues: Can they get the votes?
2. Education funding
Once more, the state Supreme Court’s long-running edict that lawmakers must fully fund basic education in public schools will dominate the agenda at the Capitol.
This year, lawmakers must tangle with how to come up with roughly $1 billion to satisfy the court — or whether to ignore the justices entirely. Inslee has proposed using reserves to meet the court order, known as McCleary, with a promise to refill state coffers with a carbon tax later on.
Republicans have not been enthusiastic about the plan, saying it’s not fiscally responsible. Legislative Democrats have held their plans for McCleary close so far.
The latest chapter in the McCleary saga has been years in the making. Since the original 2012 order, lawmakers have directed billions of dollars into the K-12 school system and enacted a swath of education reforms. The 2017 session brought a response to perhaps the most challenging aspect of McCleary.
The court required the state to take on the full cost of teacher and school administrator salaries that have been funded in part by local property-tax levies.
To do so, lawmakers enacted a statewide property tax expected to bankroll $7.3 billion in new state spending on education over four years. The Legislature also passed a plan to restrict how much local levies can be raised for schools and limited how that money can be spent.
Because the spending plan is phased in, the state will not take on full funding of basic education until the 2019-20 school year. That misses a September 2018 deadline set by the court, which is otherwise pleased with the Legislature’s work on McCleary. To meet the 2018 deadline, lawmakers would have to come up with about $1 billion.
Legislators are so far divided on how to meet the ruling. Some have suggested the Legislature disregard the court order and accept being one year late to spare the money and keep their complex property-tax swap intact.
3. Capital budget vs. water policy
Near the top of Democrats’ priority list is passing a construction budget, known in Olympia as a capital budget, after lawmakers failed to approve one in 2017.
While the capital budget normally receives bipartisan support, it was stopped during the 2017 session because of a fight between Democrats and Republicans over rural water policy.
Republicans refused to approve the capital budget without first addressing the 2016 state Supreme Court decision on water rights known as Hirst. Even though Democrats have control of the Legislature, Republicans maintain substantial leverage on the issue. Bonds necessary to implement the capital budget require approval from 60 percent of lawmakers.
That means negotiations likely are necessary to approve the $4 billion spending plan, which is expected to have more than $1 billion for schools and money for numerous other construction projects around the state.
On Thursday, at the Associated Press Legislative Preview, lawmakers appeared no closer to a resolution of the impasse.
The Hirst ruling requires counties to more intensively regulate the drilling of small wells out of concern they are sapping water from senior water rights holders such as tribes, as well as the natural environment.
The GOP has called the regulations onerous, and many counties say they can’t afford them, effectively halting some construction and leaving some property owners without water.
Counties previously relied on an assessment from the state Department of Ecology to approve a certain class of small wells, known as permit-exempt, that draw up to 5,000 gallons of water per day.
Republicans want the Legislature to more or less overturn the ruling while investing in water conservation projects to mitigate the effect of wells.
Democrats have offered to halt the ruling for 24 months and promised to continue negotiations on more permanent legislation to address Hirst. Many in the party have expressed support for more scrutiny of wells and water availability.
Senate Democrats have planned a hearing Monday on another proposal to address Hirst they hope will work as a compromise.
4. Can they end on time?
Officials from both parties have made it clear they want to adjourn the 2018 legislative session without using any special sessions that would extend legislative work beyond the 60-day limit.
The last time the Legislature adjourned without going into overtime was 2014, and lawmakers have gone into overtime seven of the last 10 years, racking up expenses and costs along the way.
Last year took three special sessions to complete, and lawmakers’ time at the Capitol was record-setting in length.
Extra sessions in recent years have been attributed at least in part to divided government. Lengthy negotiations between Republicans and Democrats were needed to solve complex, court-ordered education reforms.
Even so, Democrat-controlled Legislatures in the past often needed special sessions to adjourn as well.
This year, lawmakers still need to contend with McCleary and other thorny issues. The 2018 session is also a short budget year in which the Legislature typically tweaks the two-year budget approved the year prior.
If you’re a state government watcher, maybe don’t book those early spring vacation plans quite yet.