Politics & Government

Beyond the budget: Debates that will help keep the session interesting

State lawmakers have more to fight about than just money.

Beyond budgets and taxes, there are sleeper issues that could help drive the direction of the session. Others will turn out to be no more than sideshows.

Some of the questions are perennials. Should insurance companies be required to cover abortion? Should the state’s worker’s compensation system be restructured? Should electric-utility quotas for green power be loosened?

Here are 10 more emerging as issues for the session.


Washington has at least 85 regulated and licensed stores selling heavily taxed marijuana. Alongside those are hundreds of unlicensed and unregulated marijuana shops whose wares are intended for medicinal use.

Now members of both parties in the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee say they want to align the two systems.

Plans by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, are different, but both would require state licenses for all retail outletsregardless of their medical or recreational customer base, and would offer tax breaks to medical-oriented sellers.

Money could be a sticking point, as it was last year when the Senate approved a proposal with similar goals that became mired in negotiations in the House.

Minority House Republicans’ leader, Snohomish Rep. Dan Kristiansen, told reporters Thursday that local governments deserve a cut of marijuana proceeds. Budget writers are loath to give up the money, and the disagreement helped stymie last year’s measure.


Inslee is moving toward executive action on new limits on industrial pollution discharged into state waters, to ensure that people safely eat fish.

But Inslee says everyday chemicals are even more hazardous than big polluters, and to tackle those, he needs authority from the Legislature.

Inslee has called for lawmakers to let his Ecology Department ban toxic chemicals when there are safer alternatives.

That is likely to run into resistance in the majority-Republican Senate, where Majority Leader Mark Schoesler told reporters Thursday that lawmakers should be wary of handing over more responsibility to bureaucrats.


Efforts to raise the minimum wage went nowhere in last year’s legislative session.

That was before the state’s largest city decided to go it alone, possibly giving some momentum to a statewide push. Seattle plans to raise the wage floor over time to $15, the same level approved by voters in SeaTac.

Proposals at the state level have been more modest, with some House Democrats calling for a $12 minimum.

Seattle also has required employers to provide paid sick leave, something the Tacoma City Council is considering. Last year, the Democrat-controlled House voted for a similar policy statewide.

Senate Republicans look skeptically on those ideas, and some would like to roll back the labor laws in Seattle and block other cities from following suit. Other GOP proposals would create a lower minimum wage for the youngest workers.

Schoesler said last week the Senate is open to a bargain that would combine a small increase in the minimum wage with a training wage or a barrier to new local minimums.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, who plans to resume her push for a statewide minimum wage increase this year, has said a citizen initiative could wind up before voters if the Legislature doesn’t act.


House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said Thursday lawmakers would again try to make it easier to detain potentially dangerous family members with mental illness. The House voted unanimously last year to allow immediate family members to appeal an official’s denial of an involuntary commitment.

But expanding involuntary commitment costs money, and the most recent expansion is less than a year old.

Money is the most significant factor in fixing the mental health system, said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers are trying to comply with court orders to stop letting patients languish in jails and emergency rooms.

Inslee’s version of the budget would pay for 180 beds the state has recently made or could make available in a variety of settings, mainly to make sure there is space for patients who have faced long waits in emergency rooms. The plan calls for reopening two shuttered 30-bed wards at Western State Hospital, including one for evaluation and treatment of criminal defendants who face long waits in jails.

Jinkins said she also will promote court-ordered outpatient treatment to help the mentally ill before detention becomes necessary.


Lawmakers have a double purpose for considering changes to criminal sentences: reduce Washington’s first-in-the-nation rate of property crime and avoid future prison costs.

A proposed new sentencing “grid” for most property crimes would slash the jail and prison sentences of more than 2,000 offenders while subjecting them to a year of community supervision. Today, Washington generally doesn’t supervise property offenders following their release.

A plan developed by a bipartisan task force of lawmakers, the Inslee administration and others includes the new grid and aims to reduce the property-crime rate 15 percent by 2021.

Stories of criminals slipping through the cracks in supervision to offend again will surely come up, despite assurances by national researchers who helped craft the proposal that Washington’s supervision system is top-notch.

An even tougher sell might be a different task force’s call to chip away at the state’s Hard Time for Armed Crime law that forces judges to hand down sentence enhancements for gun crimes.

Its proposal would exempt minors tried as adults from the mandate.


Railroads move billions of gallons of crude oil annually through Washington now, in contrast to a couple of years ago when oil transport was not an issue.

A state report found 19 trains of roughly 100 tank cars each pass through the state weekly, which would rise dramatically if proposals to expand refineries and add terminals are successful. It found many first responders aren’t prepared for a major derailment, such as the one that killed 47 people in Quebec in July 2013.

There’s bipartisan interest in raising money for spills cleanup by applying to rail the same fee charged on marine shipments of oil. Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and the chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee, backs such a fee.

The report from Inslee’s Ecology Department recommends railroads and pipelines submit advance notice about oil shipments. The House, but not the Senate, last year passed a requirement for more disclosure.


The big tax battle will come over Inslee’s ambitious plan for a charge on carbon emissions and a capital-gains tax. The two combined would raise more than $1.7 billion a year.

But also expect a furor over his call for an electronic cigarettes tax , which could raise a comparatively paltry $14 million in its first full year.

E-cigarettes heat and vaporize a solution of nicotine and flavoring. Passionate defenders of “vaping” say it is a life-saving, tobacco-free alternative for smokers trying to kick their addiction. Advocates helped short-circuit a tax proposal last year.

Inslee says vapingit is a way to hook kids on smoking just as the practice was becoming a thing of the past.


Washington voters showed a willingness to set limits on gun rights last year when they required background checks for all gun purchases and loans. Supporters hadn’t been able to muster the votes for the change in the Legislature.

With momentum from the successful ballot initiative, and with deadly shootings at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and Seattle Pacific University still fresh in minds, will lawmakers be more willing to expand gun laws?

One clue to what kind of gun restrictions have a chance in the Legislature could be its unanimous decision last year to remove guns from people subject to domestic-violence protection orders.

California recently adopted a law that allows judges to order temporary seizure of guns from people posing a threat if family members or law enforcement request such protection. Washington could do something similar.

The wish list for gun-control advocates also includes a safe-storage law making it a crime for leaving a loaded firearm where a child can and does get hold of it.


The state has a single public medical school, at the University of Washington, leaving the state near the bottom for its ratio of medical-education slots to population. Doctors say members of their profession are in short supply in rural parts of Eastern Washington.

The University of Washington and Washington State University are treading on each other’s turf as they try to fill the gap.

WSU wants to open a new medical school on its Spokane campus to address a doctor shortage, while UW wants to expand its existing regional medical training program that allows students to start their education in Spokane.

Both schools are seeking funding from the Legislature to carry out their plans.


Fallout from a high-profile spate of deadly shootings by police that sparked protests around the country could land in Olympia.

President Barack Obama has called for federal money to help outfit officers with body cameras as a way to repair trust between police and some of the people they serve. Washington law allows police to wear body cameras, and some departments have bought them. Seattle and Lakewood are among those testing them out.

But agencies say they don’t have the money or time to edit and release footage if it’s sought in public records requests.

State records laws require release of most records unless they are part of active investigations, which has made some police agencies hesitate to adopt the cameras. Lawmakers could consider changing those disclosure laws to promote use of police body cams.