OLYMPIA, Wash. — The 60-day legislative session begins Monday, with lawmakers hoping they’ll finish their work — which includes finalizing the last piece of a court mandate on education funding — without having to go into overtime.
After a win in a key Senate seat in November, Democrats are back in charge of both legislative chambers for the first time in five years, holding a razor thin 25-24 majority in the Senate and a slim 50-48 edge in the House.
While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have promised there will be no repeat of last year — when three overtime sessions kept everyone at the Capitol well into summer — they still have to reach agreement on several thorny issues.
Here are some of the issues lawmakers will be grappling with:
Lawmakers hope this session is when they’ll lose contempt of court status in their multiyear effort to fully fund basic education. The state Supreme Court ruled that while a plan passed by the Legislature last year — a phased in property tax shift — was in compliance, lawmakers are still not on track to meet this year’s fall deadline of full funding because full implementation doesn’t occur until the 2019-2020 school year. The court has given lawmakers this session to expedite that timeframe for putting about another $1 billion to fully pay for the teacher and staff salary portion of the plan. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed using some of the state’s reserves in order to accomplish that, and he wants a new tax on carbon emissions from fossil fuels to ultimately backfill that withdrawal. That idea hasn’t gotten a strong response from Democratic leaders in the Legislature though, who are likely to look for other ways to address the court’s demand. Senate and House Democrats will each unveil their proposals in the coming weeks as part of their overall supplemental budget plans.
CAPITAL BUDGET/WATER RIGHTS
Lawmakers will attempt again to end a standoff over the state capital budget that has led to dozens of layoffs in the parks department, the Department of Enterprise Services and elsewhere. The Legislature adjourned last summer without passing the roughly $4 billion budget because of a dispute over how to address a court ruling related to water rights and well permits. Republicans — who were in the majority in the Senate last year, but are the minority party this year — have insisted on a fix to the ruling, known as the Hirst ruling, before they agree to pass the two-year budget that affects projects in districts across the state, including $1 billion for K-12 school construction and money to help build facilities for the state’s mental health system. It also pays the salaries of hundreds of state workers in various departments. Even though Democrats control both the House and the Senate now, they still need Republican votes to pass a bond bill necessary to implement the budget.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s supplemental budget proposal seeks to increase spending on efforts to combat the state’s opioid crisis, putting nearly $16 million toward treatment, including on treatment hubs, and another $4 million on prevention, including a prescription monitoring program. A handful of bills, including legislation requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, have already been introduced, including companion measures in the House and Senate that seek to require health care providers to check the state’s prescription monitoring program in order to spot people who have visited multiple doctors to get opioids. Another measure seeks to limit initial opioid prescriptions to a three-day supply for those under age 21, while allowing a seven-day supply for those 21 and older. Another measure seeks a justice system diversion pilot program in Snohomish County with centralized services that address issues of opioid addiction, behavioral health treatment and housing.
Leaders in the House and Senate have been reviewing policies and procedures on how best to move forward on addressing sexual harassment, training and reporting procedures following a series of stories and allegations that have arisen out of the Washington Capitol in recent months. More than 200 women — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter in November calling for a culture change at the Capitol. The signers, who included more than 40 lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle, say that as “women serving and working in the legislative and political realm, we add our voices to the chorus of ‘enough.'” Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser has introduced a bill that would prohibit nondisclosure agreements in the workplace from binding people from disclosing incidents of sexual harassment or assault.
A ruling is expected later this month in a court case brought by 10 media organizations challenging lawmakers’ assertion that they are mostly exempt from the state’s public records act that applies to other elected officials. One lawmaker has already introduced a bill called the “legislative transparency act.” Republican Rep. Paul Graves’ bill would make records held by individual legislators subject to disclosure, though the measure would not be retroactive. Democratic Rep. Gerry Pollet has also said he would introduce a bill this session to open up legislative records.