Politics & Government

Legislature begins special session with unfinished business

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and Speaker Pro Tempore of the Washington House, raises his gavel after declaring “Sine Die” on Thursday to end the regular session of the Washington Legislature at the Capitol in Olympia.
Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and Speaker Pro Tempore of the Washington House, raises his gavel after declaring “Sine Die” on Thursday to end the regular session of the Washington Legislature at the Capitol in Olympia. The Associated Press

Nobody expected Washington state lawmakers to do much during a 60-day session leading up to a big November election.

But in some ways, the Legislature undershot those already low expectations by failing to take action on two major fronts: They didn’t pass a supplemental budget, causing the governor to call a 30-day special session Thursday for them to finish their work. And they didn’t come up with a way to solve school-funding issues that have landed the state in contempt of court, promising instead to fix things next year.

The Legislature’s modest record of accomplishments was further compromised Thursday when Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed 27 of the bills lawmakers managed to agree on this year.

The governor said he was vetoing the smaller policy bills to motivate lawmakers to focus on their main job: Passing a 2016 supplemental budget.

Still, lawmakers passed dozens of non-budget bills during their two months in Olympia and aim to accomplish more before they leave the Capitol for good.

Here’s a look at what lawmakers have done so far during the 60-day session and what they’ve left for another day.

WHAT THEY DID

K-12 school funding: Lawmakers this year produced what many observers called “a plan for a plan” to fix public education, which the state Supreme Court has ordered in the McCleary school-funding case.

In August, the court began imposing $100,000 a day in fines over lawmakers’ repeated failure to produce a long-term plan to fully fund public schools by 2018.

In response, lawmakers came up with something to give the court, but it doesn’t do a lot right now.

The bill they passed will create a task force to gather detailed financial data from school districts, something many lawmakers say is necessary to end the unconstitutional use of local school district levies.

Right now, those local property taxes are being used to cover school employee salaries, which are a state responsibility, the court has said.

However, the bill doesn’t propose to actually solve the levy problem — a complex task that may involve adjusting property tax rates, tweaking collective bargaining rules for teachers and potentially raising taxes — until 2017. And it doesn’t explain how exactly lawmakers plan to do that.

In other words, lawmakers should prepare to spend a long time in Olympia next year.

DOT firing: The most surprising and dramatic moment of the regular legislative session had nothing to do with legislation.

The Republican-controlled state Senate rejected Inslee’s appointment of Lynn Peterson about three years after Peterson took over the Department of Transportation.

The move amounted to an immediate dismissal of Peterson as transportation secretary.

A Senate committee had unanimously endorsed Peterson’s nomination just last June, as lawmakers’ negotiations wrapped up on a gas-tax package that DOT is now implementing. Inslee denounced the firing as an election-year stunt.

Republicans said DOT had mismanaged the implementation of toll lanes on Interstate 405 in King and Snohomish counties, among other criticisms.

Prison releases: Senators kept the heat on the Inslee administration after Peterson’s ouster by investigating a computer-programming error that caused the early release of up to 3,300 prisoners since 2002.

A fraction of the inmates were charged with crimes, including two homicides, committed while they should have still been in prison.

Since December 2012, employees of the Department of Corrections and Attorney General’s Office had varying levels of knowledge that release dates were being miscalculated. But a software update was repeatedly delayed, and no one did hand counts to correct the release dates.

Inslee took office in January 2013 and said he learned of the problem only last December, when he revealed it to the public and appointed two former federal prosecutors to investigate.

At least three people tied to the problem resigned from state government, and two others were demoted. Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke, who wasn’t implicated, also resigned.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee, led by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, hired another former federal prosecutor to do a separate investigation. The committee subpoenaed records and held public hearings at which senators questioned those involved.

Democrats have criticized the investigation as duplicative. Republicans say it has provided a check on Inslee’s investigation, which they say didn’t focus enough on former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner’s leadership.

The investigation is winding down, and Padden has said a report is likely in April or early May, barring unexpected developments.

Charter schools: Legislators agreed on a plan to try to keep Washington’s eight charter schools open, six months after the state Supreme Court declared the publicly funded, privately run schools unconstitutional.

To sidestep the court ruling, lawmakers agreed to fund charter schools using state lottery revenues, instead of using the state general fund that pays for traditional public schools.

While some lawmakers said they still have concerns with spending public money on charter schools that aren’t run by publicly elected school boards, for now the measure allows about 1,100 students to keep attending charter schools in Washington state.

The bill also clears the way for new charter schools to open in the next five years.

State Patrol raises: As part of changes to the state’s transportation budget, the Legislature approved $5 million to give Washington state troopers a raise this year.

The State Patrol is simultaneously losing troopers and having trouble finding new recruits, partly due to low salaries at the agency, a recent recruitment and retention study found.

The money lawmakers approved will give troopers a 5 percent pay raise in July, which many lawmakers said isn’t enough. But legislators also pledged to give troopers a larger raise next year, following a study of salaries at other law enforcement agencies.

Lawmakers said starting in July 2017, troopers and sergeants at the State Patrol must be paid salaries similar to what they’d make at the local agencies.

Body cameras: Lawmakers encouraged police to use body cameras, although they didn’t spell out strict limits on how they should be used.

A measure awaiting Inslee’s signature mainly addresses an objection to the devices from those worried about sensitive video footage showing up on YouTube.

Lawmakers put some records off limits, including footage from inside a home. The costs of redaction would largely fall on the people making public-records requests, not police agencies.

Civil-liberties proponents criticized the proposal for lacking standardized requirements for use of the devices. Instead, the proposal would direct police agencies to adopt policies of their choosing and would set up a task force to oversee the results.

Teacher shortage: Legislators passed a measure to try to address a statewide shortage of teachers and substitutes.

The plan would make it easier for out-of-state teachers to become certified in Washington, while allowing retired teachers to serve as substitute teachers without hurting their pension benefits. It would also create a grant program to provide financial aid for teachers-in-training.

The measure further directs the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to launch a statewide teacher recruitment effort.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Levy cliff: School districts throughout Washington state remain on edge about whether the Legislature will swoop in and save them from an upcoming loss in revenue.

The problem has been in the making since 2010, when lawmakers temporarily gave school districts more authority to raise local property taxes — a move designed to help the districts weather the economic recession.

But that extra taxing authority is set to go away starting Jan. 1, 2018, leaving local school districts planning for millions in cuts to their budgets in the 2017-18 school year.

School districts have asked for a one- or two-year extension of the so-called “levy cliff.” Such a reprieve would give the Legislature time to solve school-funding problems that have landed the state in contempt of court and put an unconstitutional financial burden on local school districts, supporters say.

The Legislature so far has failed to act on proposals that would delay the levy cliff, but such a plan could still be included in a deal on the 2016 supplemental budget.

Teacher raises: To help solve the state’s problems with recruiting teachers, Inslee and House Democrats have proposed raising teacher salaries to encourage more people to enter the profession.

Similar raises weren’t proposed in the budget put forth by Senate Republicans.

Whether or not teachers get raises is something lawmakers will ultimately decide as they finalize a budget.

Western State Hospital: Inspectors found the psychiatric hospital in Lakewood isn’t doing enough to comply with federal regulations and keep patients safe.

Republicans and Democrats have found some common ground in how to address the problem. Both have ideas for improving ratios of staff to patients.

Lawmakers are talking about adding more oversight of Western State Hospital and its counterpart near Spokane, Eastern State Hospital. There’s also a proposal to change the incentives for local mental-health agencies to keep patients out of the hospitals.

Pollution cleanup: Plunging oil prices have sapped the state revenue available for cleaning up and preventing pollution.

Collections of the state tax on hazardous substances such as petroleum have fallen short of forecasts.

Some lawmakers want to prioritize cleanup of polluted industrial sites. Others worry about those projects coming at the expense of prevention programs such as grants to divert chemical-laden stormwater from Washington waters.

Some proposals would find new funding for the environmental work by raising the tax on hazardous substances or by borrowing money.

Vetoed bills: Add to the list of unfinished business some work that lawmakers thought they had already finished.

On Thursday, Inslee vetoed 27 of the bills passed by both chambers of the Legislature, saying he hoped that action would push lawmakers to speed up work on a supplemental budget.

The vetoed bills included measures to allow for marijuana research licenses, permit growing of industrial hemp and reconsider food-safety rules for rice noodles.

Inslee has said he may veto more legislation if lawmakers continue to drag out the budget process.

Lawmakers have a couple of options. On any bill, they can override the governor’s veto with a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.

Alternatively, a simple majority of lawmakers can pass the vetoed legislation again during the Legislature’s current 30-day special session, sending it back to the governor in hopes he’ll sign it after lawmakers reach a budget deal.

Governor’s vetoes

Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed 27 bills late Thursday, carrying out a threat he made to reject measures if lawmakers didn’t reach a budget deal. Inslee called it “perhaps the largest batch of vetoes in state history.” He also signed 10 bills Thursday. All 37 bills had been delivered to his office last week and faced a deadline for gubernatorial action.

The vetoed bills and their chief proponents are:

Agency-request legislation

Signatures (SB 6491, Secretary of State): Would have allowed the secretary of state to attest to the authenticity of the signature of a public official or notary public.

Fish sales (SB 6401, Department of Fish and Wildlife): Would have clarified record-keeping requirements for fish sales, shipping and storage.

Bonds (SB 6342, Housing Finance Commission): Would have changed maximums for tax-exempt bonds by state issuers for housing and student loans

Apple Commission (SB 6290, Apple Commission): Would have updated regulations concerning state Apple Commission procedures.

Athlete agents (SB 6281, Uniform Law Commission): Would have tightened regulations about how sports agents conduct business.

Utilities and transportation commission (SB 6196, Utilities and Transportation Commission): Would have changed how the commission handles fees and reimbursements for the energy facility site evaluation council.

Invasive species council (SB 6162, Recreation and Conservation Office): Would have moved the expiration date for the authorization for the council from 2017 to 2022.

Pharmacy assistants (SB 5549, Department of Health): Would have enabled fees to register pharmacy assistants and made them subject to discipline by the Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission.

Democrat-sponsored bills

Marine resources (SB 6633): Would have extended the expiration date for the Marine Resources Advisory Council.

Patient costs (SB 6569): Would have created a task force on patient out-of-pocket costs.

Disabilities (SB 6466): Would have convened a work group to develop a plan for removing obstacles for students with disabilities.

Cultural foods (SB 6398): Would have required state health board to consider scientific data on refrigeration of rice noodles and rice cakes.

Credit transfer (SB 6354): Would have called for plans to ease transfer of credits from four-year to two-year colleges.

Hemp (SB 6206): Would have authorized the growing of industrial hemp.

Treasurers (SB 5767): Would have updated electronic payment practices for county treasurers.

Republican-sponsored bills

Cannabis promotions (SB 6341): Would have let marijuana producers and processors give certain promotional items and personal services to retailers, and would have allowed the businesses to link to each other’s websites and produce tourism brochures.

Federal funding (SB 6220): Requires coordination among public agencies to leverage federal funds for research and development and transfer of technology to the private sector.

Marijuana research (SB 6177): Would have removed an obstacle keeping marijuana research licenses from being issued by changing the agency overseeing the licenses.

Health districts (SB 5458): Would have let health districts act as custodians of their money.

Health technology (SB 5145): Would have required at least one member of the Health Technology Clinical Committee to be appointed from nominations by two medical associations.

Republican-sponsored bills with Democrat-sponsored companion bills

Wholesale vehicle dealers (SB 6606): Would have strengthened the requirements for wholesale vehicle dealers to maintain offices in the state.

Testimonial privileges (SB 6498): Would have extended the exemption from having to testify in civil cases that applies to clergy and spouses, among others, to alcohol and drug addiction recovery sponsors.

Auto dealer and repair facility records (SB 6326): Would have allowed vehicle dealers and repair shops to keep some required records in electronic form.

City retirement boards (SB 6170): Would have extended to city retirement funds similar public disclosure exemptions for financial and commercial information now afforded state plans.

Self-service storage facilities (SB 6148): Would have added trailers, recreational vehicles and campers to the vehicles that may be towed or removed from a self-service storage facility when the owner hasn’t paid rent.

Deposits of public funds (SB 5265): Would have added some exceptions to the rule that public funds must be deposited within the state.

Democrat-sponsored bills with Republican-sponsored companion bills

Sprinkler systems (SB 6284): Would have prevented water-sewer districts from not allowing homeowners to install sprinkler systems that are tied into a home’s regular plumbing.

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