As with any legislative session, this year’s lengthy meeting in Olympia had its share of triumphs and failures. And while lawmakers eventually agreed upon a state budget that includes increased spending for K-12 education, that success is largely overshadowed by lingering disappointment.
Notably, the meeting extended through three special sessions that concluded Thursday. The 193-day session set a record for number of days in a single year, demonstrating the difficulty lawmakers have in reaching agreement and belying the purpose of Washington’s system of government.
With the longest sessions scheduled for 105 days, Washington is expected to have a citizen Legislature in which average people can serve. But the extended sessions that have become routine limit service to those who are retired or can afford to spend much of the year at the state Capitol. The inefficiency has turned the positions into more than part-time jobs, a fact that poorly serves the electorate.
That’s not to say the job is easy. Legislators were faced with difficult tasks, including devising a two-year state operating budget. After butting up against the June 30 deadline for avoiding a partial shutdown of state services, they agreed upon a $43.7 billion biennial budget that includes an additional $1.8 billion in education spending. Whether or not that meets the mandate for making education the Legislature’s “primary duty” will be up to the state Supreme Court.
While the school funding issue took up most of the session and ultimately resulted in a bipartisan compromise, lawmakers adjourned Thursday with a major failure hanging over them. They were unable to pass a $4 billion capital budget, which is designed to fund construction projects. Senate Republicans refused to consider the budget until lawmakers addressed a water-rights issue resulting from a state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision.
The impasse reflects a lamentable breakdown. In tying the capital budget to the Hirst decision, Republicans played politics with unrelated funding that puts people to work and provides for important projects throughout the state. The capital budget would have brought $48.8 million to Clark County construction, including $1.7 million for a recovery center at Daybreak Youth Services and $500,000 for the Bridgeview Education and Employment Resources Center. Democrats had offered a 24-month temporary fix to the Hirst decision, which hampers development in rural areas and does, indeed, call for a legislative solution. But a handful of Republicans held out for a permanent solution and allowed the capital budget to wither.
Such is the nature of politics. Compromise is necessary and leverage is part of the game, but using that leverage to scuttle the capital budget amounted to little more than spite and will halt needed projects in every county. Lawmakers “did not add to their successes tonight,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at the close of the session.
Having a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a Republican-controlled Senate can make successes difficult to come by. But Washington is well-served by a split Legislature. Differing ideologies require compromise and provide a voice for all citizens throughout Washington.
That being said, the Legislature has been a growing source of frustration for those citizens. By allowing the operating budget to linger into a third special session and by failing to pass a capital budget, lawmakers turned this year’s session into a disappointment.