Apparently taking its cue from a gridlocked Congress in Washington, D.C., the state Legislature of 2014 could best be described as a “do-little” gathering.
Of course, when the Congress or the Legislature actually do something, that normally means money out of taxpayers’ pockets, so a lack of activity in Olympia could be viewed as a positive development for the state. But there are many pressing issues facing Washington that did not receive adequate attention during the session that concluded late Thursday night, and there are several examples of legislators turning out the lights on topics that will require illumination in the near future.
First and foremost is the subject of K-12 education. After adding $1 billion in funding last year as part of the 2013-15 biennial budget, lawmakers tacked on $58 million as part of a supplemental budget. In January, Gov. Jay Inslee had asked for $200 million in K-12 spending to be approved this year. In the long run, falling short on K-12 funding isn’t a matter of remaining fiscally responsible; it is a matter of delaying the inevitable. The state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision calls for adequate funding of public education by 2018, and the court is certain to chastise lawmakers for their glacial progress on the issue.
Yet while public education remains the elephant in the room for the Legislature, there were other issues that bordered on gridlock. As The Seattle Times wrote: “So unremarkable was the session that it took a last-minute deal to pass a bill supported by Inslee and every single lawmaker. That measure, to give in-state tuition to out-of-state veterans, had stalled over a squabble over which side would get credit, but finally passed two hours before the midnight deadline.” In other cases, a construction budget failed to get through despite passing the House by a 92-4 vote; a bill creating an electronic database for lobbyists’ financial reports didn’t get a hearing in the Senate despite clearing the House 97-0; and a transportation bill funded by a gas-tax increase didn’t gain any traction despite long negotiations.
“I think we got a lot done,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, Mason County. “We didn’t raise your taxes, we didn’t send them (voters) a transportation bill they would have rejected. We kept the lid on spending.”
As far as Clark County interests are concerned, lawmakers properly maintained a program giving sales-tax exemptions to out-of-state residents shopping in Washington, and they provided $218,000 for a move of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Vancouver office to another location in the city.
“What we agreed upon was in the budget,” Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, told The Columbian. “What we did not agree upon was not in the budget.” Or, as Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, told The Seattle Times, “It may just be the reality of divided government, but we have a number of issues in this state we can’t seem to get a handle on.”
Democrats control the House and the governor’s office; Republicans lead the majority coalition in the Senate. While that division of power often leads to frustration, in the long run it is best for the residents of Washington. As political philosopher Edmund Burke said, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”
Next year’s legislative session will require plenty of prudence, compromise, and barter. But it also will call for a little more action.