Lawmakers have plenty to do before session ends Thursday

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers had one thing in mind when they began the 2014 session: Finish on time.

Three special sessions in 2013 left them physically exhausted, mentally drained and to some extent tired of seeing each other.

It seemed every Democrat and Republican in the House and Senate made it a priority to wrap up work in their constitutionally allotted 60 days. Thursday is Day 60, and there remain a bundle of bills legislators are trying to agree on. One — a transportation funding package —is pretty much out of reach.

That means emotions are heating up and conversations are moving behind closed doors as deals are discussed on state spending, teacher pay, medical marijuana rules and funding for homeless assistance programs.

“This is where we start getting people saying ‘If you want my vote, or if I’m going to get your vote, what have I got to do to get there,” said House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish. “It’s not just between the bodies of the House and Senate but also between members in the House and Senate.”

As the clock winds down and the pace quickens, attempts may be made to commandeer control of a chamber in order to force a vote on a measure or two.

“There’s always the posturing,” Kristiansen said. “You have some individuals who want to turn the place upside down and light everybody’s hair on fire.”

House and Senate budget writers have yet to agree on revisions in the state’s two-year spending plan, which was approved last summer.

One of the most significant differences is whether to provide teachers with their first state-paid cost-of-living-adjustment in several years. Voter-approved Initiative 732 calls for annual raises. But lawmakers, citing a lack of money, suspended those increases.

House Democrats this year pushed through a spending plan with $55 million for a 1.2 percent increase for teachers and other school personnel. The Senate budget, approved on a bipartisan 41-8 vote, does not include any money for a wage increase.

“We’re still going to be struggling with the COLA, which I think needs to be done,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee and one of the dissenters on the budget.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, the chief budget writer, said because Washington must develop budgets that balance over a four-year period, any wage increase granted now will leave the state with much lower reserves in the fourth year. Salary issues should be taken up in 2015 when new two- and four-year budgets are crafted, he said.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Republican-controlled Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate, and majority House Democrats, are negotiating the fate of a pile of policy bills.

At the top of the heap is a bill to revise the statewide teacher evaluation program to avoid losing a federal waiver worth millions of dollars to schools.

That waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law nets around $40 million for school districts to use assisting academically-challenged students. Districts lose flexibility on how those dollars are spent if the waiver is lost.

To keep it, federal officials want Washington to require scores on statewide tests be used in evaluating the performance of teachers and principals. Existing law says the test performance can be used but isn’t required.

The state’s largest teachers union and many lawmakers in both parties oppose the change and have thus far succeeded in blocking bills that would make state test scores a mandatory measure of educators’ performance.

“I believe there is enough pressure from superintendents, parents and the governor saying we have to get this done,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chairman of the Senate education committee. “I don’t believe the majority of the Legislature is willing to turn their backs on $40 million.”

Earlier in the session, 21 Democrats and seven Republicans united to defeat a bill aimed at satisfying the demands of the federal government.

McAuliffe said the next step is likely in the House.

“If they can’t pass it, why would we pass it,” she said.

By Thursday, House and Senate members hope to configure a way to merge the largely unregulated medical marijuana market with the heavily regulated industry for growing and selling of weed for recreational use. The Senate on Saturday passed its new rules for medical marijuana and will now negotiate with the House on a final bill.

And there is a continuing rift on whether to continue a $40 document recording fee collected by county auditors and used to fund homeless assistance programs. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus nixed a bill to maintain the fee which would begin phasing out next year.

And the two chambers also are divided on what to tweak in the two-year capital construction budget. Groups like the Edmonds Center for the Arts and the Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center in Everett will be watching closely because they are in line for funds in the version passed by the House, but not the one approved the Senate.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman will also be watching. Senators fully endorsed her request for nearly $1.1 million to handle the short- and long-term space needs of the Washington State Archives. House members did not.

Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, is still working to pass a bill to raise $700 million for construction of elementary school classrooms. Bonds would be sold and paid back through lottery revenues; the legislation overwhelmingly passed the House but got the cold shoulder from Senate leaders.

“We’ve got time right now to work everything out,” he said. “If we haven’t talked about this and had meetings on it by Monday then it gets tough.” But it’s not surprising it’s bumping up against Thursday’s conclusion. “It’s normal that we’re getting the tough negotiations done at the end,” he said.

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

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