OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday, and while they don’t have to grapple with a budget shortfall for the first time in several years, they still face pressing issues over funding for education and transportation.
However, with a politically-divided Legislature and an important election on the horizon that has the entire House and half of the Senate up for re-election, what exactly lawmakers will be able to agree on during the 60-day legislative session is yet to be seen. Even whether or not to pass a supplemental budget is up in the air.
“You could operate without a supplemental budget. There are sufficient funds,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said during a recent forum hosted by The Associated Press. He noted that any budget they passed would need to be “gimmick free.”
The Senate is controlled by a predominantly-Republican coalition that includes two conservative Democrats, but Democrats control the House. And both House leaders and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee have insisted a supplemental budget is needed.
Here are some other things to watch for during the upcoming session:
EDUCATION: Lawmakers have been working to respond to a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that said the Legislature isn’t adequately funding education, and last year they put nearly $1 billion toward the requirements. However, the high court just issued a ruling saying that lawmakers aren’t making fast enough progress and have given them an April 30 deadline to submit a complete plan to detail how the state will fully pay for K-12 education. The 8-1 ruling said that while the state made progress in last year’s budget to increase funding for K-12 education, it was “not on target” to hit the constitutionally required funding level by the 2017-18 school year. Inslee has said that the state will need an estimated $5 billion over the next four years to satisfy the requirements.
“We’ve got to find a way to reach out and work together to solve a really historic problem,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, who is a member of the legislative committee that has been submitting reports on the Legislature’s progress to the court.
TRANSPORTATION: Lawmakers struggled all last year and ultimately failed to reach agreement on a transportation plan, and problems facing the State Highway 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct replacements make the discussion this session to raise the gas tax to pay for roads, bridges and transit throughout Washington even more difficult. Though they differed on the details, all sides were hoping for a roughly $10 billion deal that relied on increasing the state’s gas tax by at least 10 cents a gallon. Last week, the state Department of Transportation said another $170 million is needed to complete the Highway 520 bridge replacement over Lake Washington. Officials said an agency error on pontoon design is consuming most of the project’s reserve funds. Lawmakers had capped the project budget at $2.72 billion. And the machine digging a tunnel for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement has been stuck for more than a month, raising concerns that more money will be needed for that $1.4 billion project.
Lawmakers earlier this week said they’d continue negotiations but didn’t sound confident that a package would pass this session.
“Like everything else, it’s a matter of timing,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
MEDICAL AND RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA: Some lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee are worried that Washington’s long-unregulated and largely untaxed medical marijuana system could undercut its new, highly taxed recreational industry, and the U.S. Justice Department has warned that the state’s medical industry is untenable. Legislators are considering a major overhaul that could include saddling medical marijuana with the same big excise taxes as recreational pot, although patients who sign up for a mandatory state registry might get a break by not having to pay sales tax. Other medical-side recommendations by the state Liquor Control Board, which oversees the new industry, include banning collective marijuana gardens, allowing home grows but cutting the limit from 15 to 6 plants, and cutting how much pot patients can have from 24 ounces to three ounces — which is still more than the one ounce adults are allowed under the recreational law. The board has suggested allowing licensed recreational shops to sell medical cannabis. A House bill has already been introduced incorporating much of the recommendations, and a handful of other measures addressing marijuana have also been filed. Washington voters passed Initiative 502 in November 2012 to legalize and regulate the recreational use of pot by adults over 21, and the first state-licensed pot stores are expected to open in late spring. The nation’s first recreational sales began Jan. 1 in Colorado, which legalized marijuana the same time as Washington.
GUN CONTROL: There are dueling gun initiatives to the Legislature, one which would require background checks on all firearm sales in Washington, another would limit gun background checks to whatever is the national standard. That proposal also would stop confiscation of firearms without due process. If lawmakers take no action, both proposals would proceed to the November ballot. Lawmakers can also offer up another option to run alongside the initiative. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan has said that there would likely be public hearings on the measures, but that the Legislature would not likely take them up for a vote, letting voters decide on the initiatives as written.
POSITIONING FOR THE 2014 ELECTIONS: All of the House and half of the Senate are up for re-election in November, including Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the Democrat from Medina who leads the predominantly-Republican Majority Coalition Caucus. The coalition holds a 26-23 majority in the Senate. Democrats control the House with a 55-43 margin. Some lawmakers have acknowledged that it will be tough to take some votes, especially on taxes, in such a politically-charged year. Both sides are already pushing bills popular with their political bases, but which may not gain traction in the short session. Senate Democrats have already said they’ll reinstate their push for two bills that passed the House but failed to get brought up for a vote in the Senate last year — one to make young immigrants living in the country without legal permission eligible for college financial aid, and another that would secure abortion coverage for all Washington health plans. And some Republicans have renewed calls to make workers’ compensation rules more business friendly, measures that passed the Senate but stalled in the House last year.
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