OLYMPIA — It will not be business as usual in Olympia this year.
With a new governor in power, a new alliance ruling the state Senate and another budget deficit, the 2013 session starting Monday promises to be memorable if not historic.
Democrat Jay Inslee will begin his tenure as governor facing a divided Legislature. The state House will be run by Democrats while the Senate will be guided by a coalition of all 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats.
Leaders of this alliance espouse the same goals championed by Inslee on the campaign trail — writing a balanced budget without new taxes, reforming the way state government runs, and reforming and funding education.
But because such power-sharing across party lines is a rarity in Olympia, there are expectations of a bumpy ride and worries about extended impasses.
“It’ll be a little chaotic at first, but I think things will go fine,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.
Monday will be a personally historic day for Sen.-elect Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.
After serving in the minority for a decade in the state House, she gets a taste of the majority for the first time.
“There are some unknowns. There are still some negotiations taking place on how we’re going to proceed. But this is exciting,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
When the parliamentary drama in the Senate cools to a low simmer, lawmakers must come to grips with a projected shortfall of $900 million in the next two-year budget. They’re also under pressure from the state Supreme Court to invest more in public schools.
Democrats are talking about raising revenues. Inslee and Senate majority coalition members will be severely tested to keep their respective no-new-taxes pledges as they work to plug the budget hole and comply with the court’s directive. Erasing a budget deficit alone drove the Legislature into two overtimes last year.
“We will have to make some tough votes to deal with it,” Hobbs said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we have a special session.”
Getting to yes
Washington’s 147 lawmakers take their seats at noon Monday for what is scheduled to be a 105-day session.
Most of the attention will be garnered by the situation in the Senate, where Democrats will find themselves in the minority for the first time in nine years.
There are 26 Democratic senators. But conservative Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, decided to join the 23 Republicans to form the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Tom is expected to be voted the chamber’s majority leader Monday.
Since the coalition formed in December, Tom and Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, leader of the Democratic caucus, have negotiated who will lead committees and how the Senate with proceed. They haven’t reached much agreement.
On Thursday, the tension could be sensed as the two, sitting side-by-side, previewed the session for reporters at an event hosted by The Associated Press.
“There is a lot of energy out there around the game and about who’s up, who’s down, who’s in and who’s out,” Murray said. “We’re going to govern responsibly and we’re going to come out with good policies for the state of Washington. I want to emphasize it’s not the game but how you get results.”
Tom said the public isn’t interested in the machinations, just the outcome.
“This is about governing and making sure we do the people’s business,” he said.
Nonetheless, there’s lots of angst as Tom and Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, are courting Democrats to accept chairmanships of committees even as Murray opposes them.
Murray said 24 caucus members voted to reject a coalition offer to serve as chairmembers and co-chairmembers of several committees. But Monday, a few Democrats are expected to break ranks and participate in the bipartisan experiment.
Hobbs is said to be among those who’ve been asked to run a committee.
“As an individual I will make a personal decision on what is best for my district,” said Hobbs, who was chairman of Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee last year.
Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, one of the louder skeptics of the coalition, has reportedly been approached, too. He did not comment on his plans in an email discussing the upcoming session.
“I plan to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote. “Maybe they will work in a bipartisan fashion. Maybe Republican legislators in Washington state are different from Republican lawmakers everywhere else in the country and their takeover is about more than power and control.”
House members are watching the Senate with interest.
“I’ve been joking that I need to pop some popcorn, sit back and watch,” said Rep.-elect Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe. “I’m very eager to see what will happen and how it will affect the House.”
But the veteran Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, figures the drama will end quickly.
“Places function with divided government all the time,” he said. “By the time it matters, all of that will have sorted itself out.”
The matter of McCleary
Since the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to better fund basic education, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have differed on how to comply. The cost could reach $4 billion in the next six years, and both parties want to make a down payment in the next budget.
Democrats are lining up behind various proposals to raise revenue including a gas tax increase to pay for bus transportation and extending temporary taxes on beer and some services set to expire in June.
But Republicans say there’s enough money in existing tax collections. House Republicans are pushing to create a separate budget for education.
Senate Majority Coalition members say classroom reforms are as important as funding.
Tom said the court’s decision is “not just about dollars. It is about moving the educational needle” to reduce the drop-out rate and eliminate the achievement gap.
Guns, ganja and gas
Not every day will be spent watching the Senate or discussing the budget and school funding.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., will stir a passionate debate on gun control and mental health care.
Democrats are looking for ways to improve services for the mentally ill, keep guns out of the possession of those with mental health problems and increase punishment of juveniles who bring guns to school.
Republicans want to beef up armed protection on campuses, possibly by allowing principals and teachers to carry a concealed weapon.
Scott called it a “sensible” approach that doesn’t increase costs for school districts or the state.
“I would rather the criminal not know who is carrying,” she said. “I don’t think our teachers, principals or children should be sitting ducks.”
Rep.-elect Dave Hayes, a sergeant in the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department and past president of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, said school districts need flexibility as they look to increase safety on campuses.
“Arming teachers in and of itself is not going to protect our students and teachers,” he said
Voters passed the initiative legalizing recreational use of marijuana, and already some lawmakers want to revise it. This law calls for the start-up of a full-blown, state-licensed legal marijuana industry next year.
Under the initiative, tax revenues are earmarked for health care programs. There are lawmakers who want to redirect them into education. They’d have to amend the law, and any change requires passage by a two-thirds majority.
On transportation, the conversation will focus on assembling a funding package to put before voters this fall.
Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, is trying to find the politically palatable mix of fees and gas tax increases. Inslee has made the issue a priority but not endorsed or rejected any potential sources of revenue.
In the meantime, most legislators will want to first figure out how they will fund education. If a ballot measure to raise revenue is pursued, then a roads package will almost certainly be parked.
“I can see a lot of people saying I’m doing education first,” Dunshee said.
One of the most divisive issues of the session could be whether to move ahead with a broad expansion of Medicaid to make several hundred thousand children and adults eligible for subsidized care. The federal government is supposed to pay the full costs of expansion initially.
House and Senate Democrats, along with Inslee, are committed to the expansion, but Republicans in the two chambers are wary. They fear if the federal dollars dry up, the state will be on the hook.
Tom said the coalition will “take a hard look” at expansion but wants to avoid creating an entitlement that could become a huge obligation of the state budget.
A top priority for Snohomish County civic and business leaders is cementing Washington State University’s presence at Everett Community College. Area lawmakers are lining up behind WSU’s request for $2 million to add electrical engineering, hospitality and communications programs at EvCC’s University Center.
Increased funding for higher education is a big issue across the state. Finding the dollars will be tough without cutting elsewhere or raising revenues from fees or taxes.
Community leaders also want the Legislature to preserve the Public Works Trust Fund, which cities, counties and special districts rely upon for basic infrastructure projects, and return to providing a share of liquor excise taxes to local governments. Lawmakers decided not to share revenues this year and use the money to help balance the budget.
This year’s to-do list is short, but packed with tough decisions.
“I can’t wait to cast that first vote. It carries a lot of weight and responsibility,” Scott said.
Noon Monday: The 2013 session begins. It is scheduled to last 105 days and end April 28.
11:30 a.m.* Tuesday: Gov. Chris Gregoire delivers her final State of the State address to the Legislature
10:30 a.m. Wednesday: Jay Inslee sworn in as governor.
Noon* Wednesday: Gov. Inslee will give his inaugural speech
All events be televised live on TVW and webcast at www.tvw.org.
*Times are estimates.
You can find out what’s happening each day of the session on the website of the Legislature, www.leg.wa.gov. The site also provides information on bills, committee hearings and floor votes. TVW, the state’s public affairs channel, provides live online coverage of most hearings at www.tvw.org.