Erasing a projected $1.5 billion shortfall in the state budget is the primary challenge this session. Gov. Chris Gregoire put forth a blueprint in November that pares spending mostly from education, health care, public safety and human services. Lawmakers will craft their own budget-balancing plan, a task expected to take most, if not all, of the 60-day session to complete.
A big question is whether the Legislature will put a measure on the ballot to raise the sales tax by a half-cent and, if so, where those new dollars would be spent. The governor wants a vote though many Democrats aren’t embracing it yet. Nearly every Republican stands ready to oppose a sales tax hike.
Negotiations are under way on a proposal to sell bonds and use the money to fund construction projects around the state. Supporters want to raise between $1 billion and $2 billion, an amount they say will spur creation of as many as 30,000 jobs. Lawmakers could pass such a plan in the session or decide to ask voters to do so this fall.
Forced by the budget shortfall to trim funding for public schools, lawmakers are considering ideas such as a shorter school year, larger classes and smaller levy equalization payments to dozens of districts. Several non-fiscal reforms also are on the table including one to require tougher evaluations of teachers and principals.
Lawmakers will consider allowing the early release from prison of hundreds of inmates and reducing the amount of time most convicted criminals are on probation. State corrections officials say if those steps are taken, one unit at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe will be closed.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and the governor are pressing to make marriage legal for gay and lesbian couples. Republican leaders wish they wouldn’t, saying such an effort will incite turmoil in the Legislature. If a bill is passed and signed into law, opponents of gay marriage will try to repeal it with a referendum in November.
Who: Washington Legislature
What: 2012 regular session
When: Jan. 9 through March 7
How to follow: Gavel-to-gavel coverage of committee hearings, floor debates and related events is televised on TVW and webcast on www.tvw.org.
Getting the facts: Text and analysis of proposed legislation can be found online at www.leg.wa.gov and www.washingtonvotes.org. Budget-related information is available at www.fiscal.wa.gov.