After last year's rancorous legislative session, followed by three special sessions, lawmakers likely are hoping for a smooth ride through the 2014 edition that started Monday.
The 2013-15 budget was passed last year, so this is scheduled to be a short, 60-day legislative session; and this is an election year for all members of the House of Representatives and about one-half of the Senators. But while calm diplomacy might be the preferred climate for the new gathering, some crucial issues must be addressed.
At the top of that list is the still-pressing need for a transportation bill. A massive transportation bill died in the Legislature last year, leading to the apparent demise of the Columbia River Crossing. Yet even with the CRC on the back burner, late-year negotiations failed to result in an agreement that could move other major transportation projects forward in the state. For residents of Southwest Washington, that seems only fair; one proposal being floated would have raised the state gas tax by 11.5 cents per gallon while providing a pittance of return for this part of the state. Lawmakers appear reluctant to tackle transportation during this session, but if the subject does come up, it will be crucial for each region to be fairly represented in the plans.
Another major issue will be state support for K-12 education. Prodded by the state Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary decision mandating adequate support for public schools, legislators added $1 billion in funding when they passed the biennium budget. Last week, the court again rapped the knuckles of lawmakers and said that isn't enough. "The pace of progress must quicken," the court wrote. "We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the State, or, as some high courts have done, holding the Legislature in contempt of court. But, it is incumbent upon the state to demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measurable progress, not simply promises."
That would appear to be a clear directive, but it remains to be seen whether any additional funding will be squeezed out of lawmakers this session. On the other hand, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a $200 million supplemental budget to bring before lawmakers, and it will be a hard sell to get any spending measures passed with the McCleary mandate looming.
And while lawmakers likely are hoping for a relatively pastoral session, the most contentious issue might be one of their own making. Late last year, they extended tax breaks for Boeing that add up to $8.7 billion, successfully enticing the company to build the 777X in the state. Now, leaders in technology industries are lobbying for the Boeing treatment. "It's time for a similar economic development strategy focused on meeting the needs of Washington information technology, biotechnology and other innovation sector employers," they wrote in a letter to the governor and lawmakers. Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, told The Columbian, "We have to take another look at tax exemptions. We passed a really, really thorough policy bill to start reviewing all those, and then Boeing sidestepped them."
The Boeing situation could have an impact in other areas, as well. Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, on Monday proposed trying to push state employees out of a defined pension plan and into self-managed retirement plans, much as Boeing did with members of its machinist union. As history has demonstrated, any issue dealing with public employee contracts does not end quietly. Which means that it didn't take long for some bumps in the road to appear in front of this year's Legislature.