A divided Legislature adjourns after 176 days of bickering

OLYMPIA — At long last, it’s over.

The 2015 legislative session came to an uneventful end Friday, a record-setting 176 days after it began.

The House of Representatives applied the final touches by approving two bills needed to launch a $16.1 billion transportation spending package, the first new investment in the road system in 10 years. An 11.9-cent hike in gas tax will help pay for it.

They also passed a separate bill waiving a requirement that high school students pass a biology exam to graduate. It applies to graduating seniors this year and in 2016.

Their action came a day after the Senate took its final votes of the year, including ones to delay the graduation requirement and suspend voter-approved Initiative 1351 for four years.

On Friday, there were cheers at the conclusion but no apologies for having taken so much time to finish. Rather, they said, it’s a reality with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats ruling in the House.

“Going in I knew it would go into overtime,” said first-year Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds. “When you have divided government and chambers that start at two very different points on the line, it’s going to take some time to get to the middle.

“I think it’s been a productive session, even with all the stand-offs and battles. That’s democracy,” Peterson said

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, recalled that lawmakers endured a similar experience in 2013, when House Democrats and the Majority Coalition Caucus locked horns.

“It forces tough issues to be talked through,” he said of divided government. “Hopefully, we did our job well enough this year that 2016 ends up being just about working on the little pieces.”

And he joined the chorus of House and Senate leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee to applaud the session’s accomplishments, most of which are in the two-year, $38.2 billion budget that went into effect July 1.

That spending plan provides roughly $1.3 billion to move the state closer to satisfying a constitutional obligation to amply fund public schools, as required by an order of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling. Some of those dollars will be spent to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. Shrinking class sizes in grades 4 through 12, as required by Initiative 1351, is being delayed.

There’s also money to expand all-day kindergarten statewide and to pick up the tab for materials and supplies. And the budget provides teachers and school employees with their first state-funded pay hike in six years.

It also allots money to pay for a tuition cut for resident students at two- and four-year colleges, expand early learning programs, improve the quality of child care services, boost mental health services, support parks and give state workers a raise for the first time in six years.

In a separate capital construction budget, there’s money for Marysville Pilchuck High School to replace the cafeteria where a deadly shooting occurred in 2014 and for Washington State University to build a new home for the University Center consortium it manages in Everett.

And in the transportation package there’s $670 million directed to projects in Snohomish County over the next 16 years.

Friday, the House needed a minimum of 59 votes to pass the bond bill required to finance most, if not all, of that work.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, whose district includes parts of south Snohomish County, cut short her vacation in Maine to fly back to cast a vote. Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, came in from Hawaii, where she had been with her family.

“We need this (package) desperately in Snohomish County,” Ortiz-Self said. “How could I sit there on vacation knowing that my vote might be needed on this bill?”

At a news conference after the session ended, Inslee said it “was a tough session, but it has produced some darn good results for the people of Washington.”

But the governor also chided Republicans for agreeing to raise additional revenue by closing tax breaks after months of resistance and for backing a transportation package after two years of opposition.

And he derided the Republican-led Senate for blocking his proposals to reduce pollution-causing carbon emissions. One way forward, he said, is to make “personnel changes” in the chamber.

“We will break the stranglehold of the state Senate majority party that is now in the stranglehold of the oil and gas industry,” he said.

Otherwise voters might take it into their hands in 2016 with a ballot measure, he said.

Senate Republican leaders could not be reached for comment Friday.

They held their own press conference Tuesday to tout the caucus’ accomplishments, including fending off a new capital gains tax pushed by Inslee and Democratic leaders in the House. Democrats had claimed revenue from a capital gains tax was necessary to support the budget, but the House never voted on the tax.

Republican leaders also doled out praise to individual senators, including Democrats, for their efforts in drafting the budget and negotiating the transportation package.

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

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