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2018 Legislative Preview: A short session with a long list of challenges

Legislature’s new Democratic majority will revisit capital budget, school funding

By , Columbian political reporter
3 Photos
Associated Press files
Associated Press files Photo Gallery

When the Washington Legislature meets today a central goal will be finishing their work in the session’s 60 days.

Last year, the Legislature went into record overtime as lawmakers hammered out agreements on school funding and unsuccessfully sought a compromise on construction projects and water rights. During the short session, lawmakers will contend with many of the same issues while also trying to get traction on new ones.

“There are two things that need to happen,” said state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, referring to the loose ends with school funding and the capital budget. “And whatever it takes to make those things happen will be the devil in the details.”

Although the Democrats now control the Senate, it’s a slim 25-24 majority. They hold a similarly slim 52-48 majority in the House. In this closely divided environment, Clark County’s legislative delegation has prided itself as a model of bipartisan cooperation, holding regular dinners together.

Clark County lawmakers set their agenda

In the short session, legislators have a short window where they can introduce legislation. The Columbian reached out to Clark County’s legislative delegation to see what kind of bills they might introduce. Here’s what they told us:

• Sen. Ann Rivers,  R-La Center

Last session, Rivers introduced a bill making bigfoot Washington’s official cryptid. This session she will introduce legislation creating a bigfoot license plate that would generate funding for state parks.

She said she’ll introduce legislation intended to help diking and drainage districts, which are having trouble filling positions because of onerous auditing and paperwork requirements.

She said she’d also introduce legislation intended to shift penalties from lawful gun owners to criminals who use firearms.

Rep. Monica Stonier,  D-Vancouver

Stonier said she’ll introduce legislation intended to protect children and pregnant women if Congress doesn’t reauthorize funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal health insurance program.

She said she’ll also try again with her “breakfast after the bell” bill. The bill is intended to provide breakfast to low-income kids by offering the meal after the bell rings.

Stonier will also sponsor a bill that will end requirements that students pass a test to graduate.

She also said she’s sponsoring a bill to allow the city of Vancouver to lease a building downtown without providing parking.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver

Cleveland said she hopes to pass a bill that will require landlords to give tenants 30 days rather than 20 days notice when issuing a no-cause eviction.

Cleveland, who chairs the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee, said she’ll be looking at ways to stabilize the health care market. She said she’ll also introduce a bill that will establish the individual mandate to purchase health insurance at the state level. The mandate was removed as part of tax overhaul legislation.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver

Wylie and Stonier intend to introduce legislation that will establish caps on donations for candidates running in smaller port districts, such as the Port of Vancouver.

She said she’ll be introducing legislation that will factor in medical expenses when a property owner is applying for a property tax break.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver

Wilson said she will introduce legislation allowing community colleges to hire police.

She said she’ll also sponsor her Mental Health for Heroes, which would increase mental health resources for veterans on college campuses.

Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver

Kraft is sponsoring a bill that would increase the amount of annual gross income a business must receive in order to be required to file a tax return with the state from $28,000 to $35,000.

She said she’d introduce another bill intended to help retired farmers with taxes.

She said she’s also sponsoring a bill intended to address financial loses at the state’s central technology agency, and is sponsoring another that would appropriate $300,000 for a study to look at options for constructing a bridge west of Interstate 5.

Additionally, Kraft is sponsoring a bill that would establish mandatory penalties for people found guilty of patronizing a child prostitute.

Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas

Pike said in an email she will introduce legislation to reform the Growth Management Act. Specifically, the law’s soil classification and development regulations.

She said she’d also introduce a bill intended to help disabled veterans. She’ll also sponsor a bill reforming how the Washington State Dept. of Labor & Industries handles time loss benefits for injuries due to intoxication from drugs and alcohol in the workplace.

“We are planning to get together as the session resumes so I expect that to continue,” said state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver said they already have the dinners scheduled.

Capital budget and Hirst

One of the first orders of business the Legislature is expected to take up is the capital budget. It’s a $4 billion pot of money that contains funding for construction projects across the state. According to numbers from the state Office of Financial Management, the House version contained $105.7 million for projects in Clark County that have since been delayed.

“Certainly, what concerns me is the inability to move forward with constructing schools that we desperately need,” said Cleveland.

Although it was passed on a 92-1 vote last year, it stalled in the Senate, where Republicans (who controlled the chamber) linked its passage to a fix for the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision. The decision requires building permit applicants to demonstrate that they have a legally available source of water. Although Clark County has remained largely unaffected, other counties have seen development halt as a result of the ruling. Speaking at the Associated Press Legislative Preview, House Speaker Frank Chopp, a Seattle Democrat, said that both parties have been working on a compromise on Hirst.

Democrats now control the Senate by one vote as a result of a special election last November, but Republicans still have leverage. Speaking at the Associated Press Legislative Preview, state Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican, pointed out that passing the bonds to support the capital budget requires approval from 60 percent of lawmakers in both houses.

“The Hirst fix is as critical to our state and its economy as anything we can do,” said Schoesler.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said that a temporary fix to Hirst isn’t enough and said she’s willing to hold off on approving bonds for the capital budget until the issue is resolved.

“I don’t see where we get 60 percent of the votes,” said state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. “I don’t see that happening because that’s how egregious Hirst is.”

Supplemental budget

The Legislature will pass a supplemental budget, which will make adjustments to the current $43.7 billion, two-year budget.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed using $950 million from the state’s reserves to hasten the timeline for a school funding package and backfill it with a new tax on carbon emissions, the details of which are forthcoming.

Last session, lawmakers passed a school funding package that directed billions more toward education in an effort to comply with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, which mandated that the state fund basic education. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the package complied with its ruling but faulted it for going into effect for the 2019-2020 school year, missing the September 2018 deadline.

“You’re only in the first grade once and if you lose that year it doesn’t come around again,” said Inslee speaking at the Associated Press Legislative Preview.

Inslee said that the state’s budget reserves are healthy and the Legislature should honor the court’s ruling. “I have no doubt what is right here,” he said.

However, Schoesler, as well as House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen of Snohomish said that the reserves should be saved for hard times. Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Kitsap County Democrat who chairs the budget committee, also noted during the preview that the budget will need to be bipartisan in some scope or scale.

Kraft, Wilson and Rivers, were not supportive of the governor’s proposal and said the Legislature should stay the course. These legislators, as well as state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, weren’t supportive of a carbon tax, citing its potential adverse effect on business.

“I think that it’s an artificial construct,” said Rivers, of the court’s ruling. “I think the Supreme Court has forgotten who they are.”

Vancouver Democratic Reps. Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie, as well as state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, all said they were open to the idea but would want to evaluate its details before committing to it.

“I’m certainly sensitive to (how it would affect businesses),” said Stonier. “But Washington state is a leader in this area for a reason because we do things that are difficult sometimes.”

Schoesler said a carbon tax was problematic because it would fall disproportionately on different parts of the state and different industries. But he suggested he might be open to the proposal if it included safeguards for rates and offsets enshrined in the constitution.

Inslee remained optimistic about the prospects of a carbon tax and saw an opening given that legislators hadn’t given an “absolute no” on the idea and that business leaders were increasingly accepting the idea.

When asked if a carbon tax would hurt the state’s pulp and paper mills, Inslee said that other states, as well as Canadian provinces, have implemented controls on the pollutant without damaging their industries.

“The world has successfully shown that carbon pricing systems are totally compliant with economic growth,” said Inslee. “And it is very difficult to find a place where you’ve seen an industry be lost because of a carbon-pricing system.”

Other issues

Rivers said that with the Democrats in control in Olympia that there will be more legislation on social issues. She said that she expects the Reproductive Parity Act, a bill that would require insurance companies providing maternity coverage to also cover abortions, to come up. She also said the Voting Rights Act, which could require redistricting of local elections, will be revived.

“I’m sure that gun issues will be brought up, but I’m not sure the political will exists in the House to actually move anything out,” said Rivers.

During the legislative preview, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said there will be a hearing on bump stocks, an attachment that allows a semi-automatic rifle to emulate the rapid fire of a fully automatic weapon and was used in the Las Vegas mass shooting last year. She said the Senate will discuss additional background checks for “assault rifles.”

Inslee also said that he would support legislation intended to address the Federal Communications Commission vote to undo net neutrality, which prohibits internet service providers from slowing down or blocking specific content or users.

The Senate Democrats have also signaled their support for the DISCLOSE Act, which has the support of Cleveland, and will require nonprofits involved in political campaigns to disclose their contributions and expenditures.

Columbian political reporter