State lawmakers begin new session with old problems to solve

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers know what chores await them this week as they begin the 2018 session.

They labored long and hard in 2017 but threw in the towel and parted company in mid-July without finishing everything.

They didn’t pass a construction budget, settle a dispute on water rights policy, or provide relief for payers of Sound Transit car tabs.

Though they thought they had finally completed the school funding puzzle created by the McCleary decision, the state Supreme Court concluded a billion-dollar piece was missing.

Lawmakers will start with a familiar to-do list. Yet in one critical way, the situation they find themselves in is different.

Since adjourning more than 170 days ago days ago, the balance of political power shifted as Democrats captured a state Senate seat in eastern King County.

Democrats now clutch a slim two-vote majority in the House (50-48) and a one-vote margin in the Senate (25-24). With a Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, the party controls all the levers of legislating for the first time in Inslee’s tenure.

Liberal Democrats in each chamber are itching to pass a voting-rights act and gun-control restrictions, and eliminate the death penalty, ideas that stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. And Inslee is optimistic his soon-to-be-released carbon tax will get voted on as well.

Meanwhile, Republicans are hunkering down with the leader of Senate Republicans warning the Democrats’ agenda will be driven by Seattle forces and result in widening the chasm between urban and rural communities.

Longtime viewers of the annual legislative ritual figure the greatest hopes and worst fears won’t be realized.

“What I do expect from (Democrats) is to get an up or down vote on some pieces of legislation that have been blocked the last five years,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, who’s preparing for his 32nd session.

“We have a big agenda,” he said of the statewide coalition of unions. “We’re also realistic of what a Legislature with slim majorities can do in a short session.”

It is a 60-day session and an election year with all House seats and roughly half of the Senate’s to be contested this fall. Advancing controversial ideas will be difficult because there will be less time — assuming no special sessions — to iron out kinks. Plus lawmakers will be cautious of taking votes that might impact their electoral fortunes.

Democratic leaders want to tamp down expectations. They are focused on getting the work done and done on time.

“That’s our number one goal,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who is chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “People will really want to get out on time because of the election. That will help them get out on time.”

Solving for X

Lawmakers went home in July 2017 feeling pretty good about the plan they passed to make sure the state meets its constitutional obligation to cover the cost of basic education in public schools. Their approach missed the court-imposed deadline of Sept. 1, 2018, by a year and justices want them to speed things up to comply.

It’s going to mean spending about $950 million a year sooner than planned. In the next 60 days, lawmakers are going to debate whether to follow the governor’s suggestion and cover the tab with reserves. They could come up with a different strategy or do nothing and see what the Supreme Court does.

“I’m not sure there is a solution that doesn’t cause worse problems,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who negotiated the education funding plan with Democrats last year. “We should work on it. I’m not convinced there is a better way.”

Any pressure lawmakers feel appears to be a result of their weariness with the subject, and a desire of some Democrats to talk about spending more money in areas besides schools.

“The public is tired of the Legislature not finishing the job. The Legislature is tired of the issue and we need to finish the job,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, who as chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee will be crafting this year’s supplemental budget.

Democrats also want to work swiftly to break the ties binding passage of a $4.2 billion capital construction budget with an agreement on water rights policy in the wake of the 2016 Hirst decision.

Throughout the 2017 session, Republican senators refused to vote on a budget until an agreeable Hirst bill was passed. So far, the lack of a budget has cost 52 people their jobs.

That ruling said counties must predict the impact a new well would have on water flowing to nearby streams or available to existing wells. Counties must show there’s enough available water before issuing permits for new wells.

Senate Democrats have scheduled a hearing Monday on their Hirst approach.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said they would vote on a capital budget and the bonds to pay for it, and then take up water.

“It was not the right thing to do to link the capital budget to another issue,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, defended the move, saying a “Hirst fix is as critical to our state’s economy” as enacting a construction budget.

And House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, noted: “The capital budget uses tax dollars to build projects. Why are we allowing the government to build in neighborhoods where residents can’t access the same water?”

Many other issues, including the content of a supplemental budget, are going to gobble up attention.

Johnson, the state labor leader, said he expects a quick pace but, unlike 2017, doesn’t see any issue that would push them into an overtime session.

“I think the incentive for both the House and Senate and the governor to get out on time is far stronger than I’ve seen in awhile,” he said.