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April 4, 2020

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Short session, long list for legislators

Washington lawmakers have just 60 days to tackle many issues, primarily school funding

By , Columbian Political Writer
Published:
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A pedestrian walks as snow falls at the state Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 3. (STEVE BLOOM/The Olympian)
A pedestrian walks as snow falls at the state Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 3. (STEVE BLOOM/The Olympian) Photo Gallery

Last month, first-term Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a headline-making proposal to give every teacher in the state a pay raise.

State Republican leaders quickly criticized the governor’s plan to pay for the proposal, repeating their mantra: no new taxes.

On Monday, lawmakers head to Olympia for the 60-day legislative session. It will be an intense, short session with a long to-do list, and underlying every policy discussion, from boosting teachers’ wages to blocking new taxes, will be the understanding that it’s an election year.

The most daunting task facing legislators is a familiar one: fully funding the state’s public education system.

The state’s top court has placed the Legislature in contempt for failing to meet their “paramount duty” of funding schools and slapped them with a $100,000-a-day fine. Yet, the chances of lawmakers both untangling the complicated policy it will take to solve the school crisis, and pursuing the heavy political lift it will require to fund it in just 60 days are already diminishing.

The governor said Thursday that a bipartisan group working on education funding has made excellent progress since the last legislative session ended and has reached substantial common ground. Lawmakers serving on that work group said they will have a proposal to discuss and vote on a plan, but they are working on getting buy-in from their political caucuses.

“Progress is slow because we need to bring our colleagues along. We also need to bring the public along,” Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said Thursday during a legislative preview event hosted by The Associated Press.

Short session

The main purpose of a short legislative session is to make any budget adjustments necessary.

The governor’s supplemental budget often sets the tone for the legislative session. Inslee’s budget calls for an increase in funding for mental health care and adding $178 million to cover last summer’s unprecedented fire season, which destroyed more than 300 homes and burned more than 100 acres.

To increase teacher wages, Inslee has proposed closing four tax loopholes — ones that have been suggested and defeated in previous sessions. One of those includes restricting the ability of out-of-state residents to buy items tax-free.

“Meeting the compensation needs of educators and learning needs of students is extremely complex and obviously expensive,” Inslee told reporters recently.

This session also could be complicated by voter-approved Initiative 1366. The Tim Eyman-backed initiative gives lawmakers a tough choice: if they don’t ask voters to decide whether a two-thirds majority should be required to raise taxes, then the state sales tax will be reduced, hurting state coffers. Lawmakers can raise taxes with a majority vote in the Legislature. The state’s top court is weighing whether the initiative is constitutional.

With those challenges in mind, the question becomes: Can the Washington Legislature adjourn in 60 days?

Last legislative session, lawmakers broke a record for the longest session in a single year.

“I see no reason why lawmakers shouldn’t be able to complete their work on time in this upcoming short session,” Inslee said.

Funding challenge

When it comes to school funding, lawmakers are “flying blind,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

Rivers is one of the lawmakers on the governor’s task force charged with finding a path forward on the school funding crisis.

“We have no idea how much money it will take,” to adequately fund schools, Rivers said. “Throwing money at it without knowing isn’t really moving the ball forward.”

Last week, the task force said that its plan, which has not been released, will focus on getting more data to figure out exactly how much money the state needs to end its overreliance on local levies for basic education funding.

Democrats on Thursday said that number is about $3.5 billion. But Republicans say all estimates are just that until they have the data from local school districts about how much of their levy dollars are paying for basic education expenses, such as classroom teacher salaries.

Despite the complexity of the issue and the lack of consensus so far, members of the task force said a solution is possible.

“This is the year of education, and it has reached a fever pitch,” Rivers said. “We will get there.”

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, who recently was given a seat on the House Education Committee, is eager to address the funding problem.

“We are going to possibly completely redo how we pay for education in this state,” Harris said.

But Harris admits it remains a daunting prospect.

“I have a lot of teachers talking strike, strike, strike, all over the state,” Harris said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. … Do I think it’s going to get done in 60 days? I don’t know. But if it doesn’t this session, it has to be done next session.”

Back from the dead

Southwest Washington lawmakers also have a chance to resurrect legislation that didn’t pass during the previous session. Rivers said she’s bringing back her distracted driving measure, which would extend the state’s ban on texting or talking while driving to include reading or entering information into a wireless device.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who is running for lieutenant governor and giving up his seat in the House after this session, will once again try for a measure to require lobbyists and their employers to file electronic expense reports. He’s pushed for the transparency measure nearly every year since being elected and is hoping this is the year the searchable online database becomes realized.

New legislation

Moeller also likely will cause some controversy this session with a wish-list item he plans to introduce: a ban on assault-style weapons.

“We have no reasons for an assault weapon, other than to kill people,” Moeller said.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, will work to have money carved out for the 179th Street interchange at Exit 9 on Interstate 5 available sooner. Benton called rebuilding the interchange the most important economic development project in Clark County.

Funding was approved for the project in the previous legislative session, but Benton said, it won’t be available for another five years.

“We’re going to do everything we can to move that up,” Benton said.

The senator also will urge lawmakers to implement Eyman’s Initiative 1366. “Raising taxes is a last resort, not a first resort,” Benton said.

Legislators’ goals

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, plans to dedicate her time this session to fighting Inslee’s push for a carbon cap. She is working on a measure that would prohibit state government from passing environmental regulations that are more stringent than the federal government’s.

In a similar vein, Rep. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, will continue to “hold the line on taxes and reduce the overly onerous regulations that yield little benefit and cost economic growth and job opportunities.” She also is going to study issues surrounding the region’s affordable housing problems.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, will advocate for the creation of an elder justice center focused on preventing abuse.

“The age wave is coming, more people, including members of my own family, have been victims of elder fraud and elder abuse,” Cleveland said.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, will lobby for the continuation of a business tax credit that promotes downtown revitalization projects. She said she also will continue to join with Pike to try to engage citizens in Interstate 5 Bridge replacement discussions.

“I’m meeting with a lot of different people who don’t talk to each other to find out if there’s a process we can agree on that can be done in a timely matter,” Wylie said.

Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, plans to introduce a measure prohibiting state employees who have been convicted of a crime from collecting their pension. He also will work to allow terminally ill patients the ability to access experimental drugs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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