Unfinished in Olympia: budget, transportation, pay raises, pot

By Jerry Cornfield
(Everett) Herald Writer

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are returning Wednesday for a special session with pretty much the same to-do list they had when they arrived in January for the 2015 regular session.

Their top task, and one that’s stymied them for weeks, is passing a new budget before July 1 to keep state government operating for the next two years.

Gov. Jay Inslee is to meet with budget negotiators from both chambers Monday to try to reboot the conversation.

“We need to get cracking,” he said.

Lawmakers know the budget must put a substantial sum of new money into public schools if they hope to avoid sanctions from the state Supreme Court. Justices found them in contempt last year for the state’s failure to pay its share of the costs of running schools and paying teachers. The court expects a progress report this week.

Lawmakers also want to pass a two-year capital budget, a multibillion-dollar transportation package and bills dealing with recreational marijuana, carbon emissions and school-levy reform.

Legislators labored over these matters in the regular session which ended Friday. Under state law, they’ll get up to 30 days more in the special session, and longer if there are additional extra sessions.

But they don’t want to reprise the drama of 2013, when they struggled through two special sessions and did not reach a budget deal until late June, barely averting a partial shutdown of state government.

“We can do it,” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “People expect us to come to Olympia, work together and do good things. Right now we’re divided on what’s the good thing to do.”

There is a great chasm between the Democrat-controlled House and Republican majority in the Senate on the budget.

“The end game is the same,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. “The difference is how far apart the two sides are on the budget and whether it can be bridged or not by June 30.”

Accomplishments

The regular session concluded Friday on an upbeat note as the House and Senate passed a bill aimed at making oil shipments by train safer. Among other things, it will require refiners give fire departments advance notice of trains carrying any amount of crude oil.

Also Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law consolidating the medical and recreational marijuana industries under the same regulatory umbrella. The law will force existing medical marijuana dispensaries to get licensed by the state by next year.

Another high-profile accomplishment was passage of Joel’s Law, a measure allowing families to ask a judge to involuntarily commit a mentally ill loved one whom they believe will harm themselves or others without emergency treatment.

A new law inspired by the deadly Oso mudslide will require the Department of Natural Resources to collect and disseminate more information about landslide-prone areas.

And Washington State University secured a change in law so it can pursue a medical school in Spokane.

A heap of bills stalled this session, including ones to boost the state minimum wage to $12 an hour; to broaden campaign-finance disclosure rules; to bar drivers from tapping on their smartphones while driving; and to level the political playing field for minorities through the Washington Voting Rights Act.

Still to do: Here are a few issues lawmakers face in extra session.

Battle hymn of the budget: Negotiations on the budget are inching along because House Democrats and Senate Republicans disagree on the fundamental questions of how much to spend and where the money to pay for it will come from.

House Democrats want new and higher taxes to fund education and human services, but they have yet to vote on any of them. Senate Republicans say that taxes should be a last resort, not the first option, and that they won’t take Democrats seriously until they do pass them.

Meanwhile, the governor, a Democrat, backs new taxes, too. And he’s told negotiators that he won’t embrace a budget deal if it does not have additional revenue from some source.

Road warriors: There is bipartisan desire to raise the gas tax nearly 12 cents to generate several billion dollars for building and maintaining roads, repairing bridges, building ferries and expanding public transit.

Proposals approved by the state Senate and the House Transportation Committee are pretty similar on where to spend those dollars. But Senate Republicans are pushing policy changes that House Democrats strongly oppose, and that could prevent agreement.

One would divert sales tax paid on road projects away from the general fund and into the transportation budget. Other reforms deal with prevailing wage provisions, permitting and design projects, and use of money from a state toxic clean-up fund.

A big sticking point is a provision in the Senate plan to redirect all money for public transportation into roads if the governor pursues a low carbon fuel standard.

Salary showdown: House Democrats and Senate Republicans want to boost the wages of state workers and teachers but disagree on how much. Their differences amount to several hundred million dollars.

Democrats are pushing to fully fund pay hikes contained in collective bargaining agreements negotiated with the governor. Senate Republicans reject the contracts and instead offer every employee a $1,000-a-year increase, which they say will be a boon for lower-paid workers.

For teachers, the governor and Democrats want to provide a cost-of-living adjustment plus a bonus to make up for several years in which they received no increase. Republicans oppose the bonus.

Perfecting the pot law: On the final day of the regular session, there was a deal on a bill to revise taxation and regulation of the recreational marijuana industry — and then there wasn’t.

Disagreement emerged on how marijuana tax revenue is spent and whether the state should pre-empt local bans on pot businesses. Snohomish and Marysville are among 60 cities in the state that outlaw the industry within their borders.

This accord might prove elusive until a budget agreement is in hand.

Climate control: Reducing carbon emissions is a major plank of Inslee’s agenda to combat climate change, yet his vaunted cap-and-trade program stalled in both chambers.

It’s not dead, however, and there’s expectation a new version will emerge in the special session.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers know this is too important an issue for the governor to give up on, and they expect it will be in the mix right up until the final handshake of any budget deal.

Levy reform: In the school-funding case known as McCleary, the state Supreme Court said the state needs to find a way to reduce the reliance of school districts on local levies to survive.

Senate Republicans offered a plan to increase the state’s share of property taxation and swap the new dollars for money raised through local levies. Senate Democrats countered with a proposal to make the swap with revenue from a capital gains tax on Washington’s super-wealthy.

The two plans incited some passionate rhetoric in the final days, though it’s unclear what will happen in the extra session.

The Happy Budget: Historically, lawmakers fight the least over the two-year capital budget because it is a source of money for building schools, preserving open space and supporting the work of nonprofits in their communities.

There isn’t much happiness yet. One reason is that Senate Republicans, to the dismay of Democrats, would like to use money intended for local public works projects to help balance the state’s operating budget.

At the moment, both the House and Senate proposals would provide money for a new cafeteria at Marysville Pilchuck High School and a future home for the University Center program run by Washington State University at Everett Community College.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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