2014 legislative session likely to be a speedy one
With the budget balanced and lawmakers thinking about elections, both parties are motivated to work fast.
Many are arriving for the scheduled 60-day session exhausted and hung over from 2013, when they met nearly nonstop for six tension-filled months to get a budget deal done, then again in the fall under duress to appease the Boeing Co. to secure the 777X program.
Throughout the course of the regular and three special sessions, Democrats controlling the House and Republicans ruling the Senate quarreled on nearly every decision of importance.
The dynamics aren't likely to change this time around.
"Everything we'll want to pass, they'll hate. Everything they'll want to pass, we'll hate," said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. "It's 60 days and out of here."
Reasons abound for finishing on time.
Most notably, the state budget is balanced and there's money in the bank, so nothing absolutely needs be done in the session, aside from a few tweaks as to how dollars are spent.
That's unlike the past several years, during which lawmakers faced large deficits requiring them to cut funds for schools, social services and health care.
"We've got black ink instead of red ink. That makes a big difference," said House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish. "Everybody I talk with in both parties is saying, 'We're out of here in 60 days.' "
And this is an election year, which can be a motivating factor.
All 98 state House seats and more than half of the 49 Senate seats are on the ballot in November. Lawmakers will prefer to be out raising money and knocking on the doors of constituents' homes than huddling with lobbyists and whiling away hours in caucus meeting rooms.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the leaders of the two chambers recognize the situation they're in, and with the notable exception of a transportation funding package, they are setting the bar of expectation low enough this session for everyone to hurdle.
"There are not huge issues. It should not be a real drawn-out process," said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.
Interest groups understand that dynamic, too. They'll spend their time laying the groundwork for tackling their biggest matters in 2015.
"It is a short session. It is an election year," said Candice Bock, government relations advocate for the Association of Washington Cities. "A lot of our focus will be on education on our issues."
In the spotlight
The most closely watched topic this session will be whether a deal is reached on a plan to boost the gas tax by more than a dime to pay for as much as $12 billion in transportation improvements over the next 12 years.
It is a top priority of Democrats and the governor, but not Republicans. A year of negotiations, including a dozen meetings in November and December, failed to bring about an agreement.
Philosophical divisions might scuttle a transportation deal in the upcoming session, as well.
"I have no crystal ball," Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told a gathering of reporters Thursday. "I think we are going to continue to work on a package, and we'll know at some point if we are going to have one."
The two sides differ on how much money to put into mass transit. They also cannot agree on whether to redirect sales tax collected on projects from the state's general fund into the roads budget, and whether to spend dollars for toxic cleanup on improvements to keep stormwater from reaching rivers and the ocean.
House Democrats narrowly passed a bill last year, but the Senate did not act on it. They want the Senate to go first this time.
Inslee said that would be "very helpful" and show a "seriousness of purpose," as some House Democrats are concerned there are not enough votes in the Senate to end talks.
"I don't know that's the next step," he said. "Wouldn't it be better to reach agreement between all parties?"
Where they may agree
There are less contentious issues likely to get worked out this session, starting with adoption of a supplemental budget.
Inslee, who is scheduled to deliver his State of the State address at noon Tuesday, has put forth what he describes as a "hold-steady" proposal for lawmakers' consideration.
It contains extra dollars for expanding prison capacity, increasing mental health services to juveniles and boosting a couple of programs in public schools and colleges, including $500,000 for Washington State University's creation of a School of Advanced Manufacturing and Aerospace in Everett.
Snohomish County lawmakers also will be pressing for $1 million for WSU to add degree programs through the University Center at Everett Community College.
Another issue where bipartisan agreement might be found involves marijuana and finding a way to bring the largely unregulated market for medical use of pot in line with the recreational pot industry, which is set to launch this year under heavy regulation.
In education, a policy change will be sought to ensure student performance is factored into the evaluation of teachers and principals. Backers say that without such a fix, the state could lose up $40 million in federal funds.
There likely will be talk of providing teachers with their first cost-of-living adjustment in several years. And the state Supreme Court is pressing lawmakers to put more money into basic education, as it ordered in a 2012 ruling.
Reducing incidents of impaired driving is another topic that could garner attention. A law signed last year aims to reduce the number of repeat drunken-driving offenders by imposing tougher sentences.
A task force chaired by House and Senate lawmakers has come up with a number of additional ideas, including sobriety checkpoints.
Inslee said this week he is "not ready to embrace" checkpoints but called them an idea "worthy of consideration" this session.
Where they won't agree
This session will have its share of skirmishes on divisive social issues, which won't result in new laws but could provide fodder for re-election battles.
It starts on the first day, with an afternoon hearing on an abortion-rights bill known as the Reproductive Parity Act. It requires health plans that cover maternity care or services to cover abortion.
Democrats pushed an identical bill through the House in 2013 only to see it ignored by the Senate.
Backers of the Dream Act also will try again to pass the measure, which aims to make college-bound illegal immigrants eligible to receive financial aid from the state. A House-passed bill expired in the Senate Higher Education Committee last year.
Bailey, the committee chairwoman who bottled it up, said it would stall again.
"The bill does not properly address the issue of how we deal with students not here on a legal status," she said.
Republicans are likely to try again to pass reforms to the worker-compensation and unemployment-insurance systems. And some may resurrect bills to make Washington a right-to-work state.
There is certain to be some tangling on the subject of climate change as the governor pressures GOP lawmakers to embrace cap-and-trade or another means of reducing emissions from industrial sources.
Democrats also might try to raise the statewide minimum wage to closer to $15 an hour.
And competing initiatives on guns will certainly fuel emotional hearings by legislators.
One measure would expand background checks on handgun sales to include private sales. The other would ensure state gun laws do not exceed federal gun laws. Both are going to the ballot, but not until after lawmakers at least consider adopting them, which won't happen.
"Many bills will get introduced that are strictly for campaign purposes to make someone look good or to make someone look bad," Kristiansen said. "Every campaign year we go through things like this."
60 days in Olympia
Who: Washington Legislature
What: 2014 regular session
When: Jan. 13 through March 13
Where: State Capitol, Olympia
How to follow: Gavel-to-gavel coverage of committee hearings, floor debates and related events is televised on TVW on cable systems and webcast at www.tvw.org.
Get the facts: Text and analysis of proposed legislation can be found at www.leg.wa.gov and www.washingtonvotes.org. Budget-related information is available at www.fiscal.wa.gov.
Democrats rule the state House of Representatives, where they outnumber Republicans 55-43. The Senate, meanwhile, is led by the Majority Coalition Caucus composed of 24 Republicans and two Democrats. The remaining 23 Democrats make up the minority caucus.
Snohomish County is represented by 21 lawmakers — 14 in the House and seven in the Senate. Paull Shin's resignation from the Senate created a vacancy in the 21st District that won't be filled until later this month.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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