Back to work: New faces, old issues for 2019 Legislature

With levers of power under their control, Democrats are primed to push an ambitious agenda.

Snohomish County’s newest representatives gather outside the Capitol during a break in orientation activities ahead of Monday’s start of the 2019 session. Pictured are Democrat Jared Mead (from left), of Mill Creek, Republican Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, Democrat Dave Paul, of Oak Harbor, and Democrat Lauren Davis, of Shoreline. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Snohomish County’s newest representatives gather outside the Capitol during a break in orientation activities ahead of Monday’s start of the 2019 session. Pictured are Democrat Jared Mead (from left), of Mill Creek, Republican Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, Democrat Dave Paul, of Oak Harbor, and Democrat Lauren Davis, of Shoreline. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

OLYMPIA — Dave Paul has taught many college students about the art and craft of legislating.

On Monday, the Skagit Valley College administrator will begin practicing it.

Shortly after noon, the 2019 legislative session will get under way and Paul will be sworn in to the state House of Representatives.

“I am looking forward to jumping into it,” said the Oak Harbor Democrat.

There will be much to jump into.

In the 105-day session, the Legislature will debate policy issues such as climate change and the death penalty, mental health and homelessness, public schools and the presidential primary.

Lawmakers’ primary task will be writing a new two-year budget. While the state’s economy is generating billions of additional dollars since adoption of the last budget, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said it will not be enough to make significant gains in some of those areas. He’s proposing new and higher taxes to do that, which means another topic for discussion.

Democrats will hold majorities in the House and Senate. It means they will call the shots.

“We’re heading into it with a pretty collaborative mood and an understanding that as the majority party, there’s not too many options for finger-pointing when we do not accomplish what we set out to do,” said Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, whose district includes areas of south Snohomish County.

Paul is one of nearly two dozen new Democratic and Republican members in the House.

Democrat Jared Mead, of Mill Creek, is another new arrival. He spent the past two legislative sessions watching from the sidelines as an aide to Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby.

Now, the ex-Mill Creek councilman will have a seat on the House floor.

“Being a member is much, much different,” he said. “It’s pretty eye-opening.”

In all, there will be 23 new Democratic and Republican members in the House. In terms of age, race and gender, this frosh class might be the most representative of Washington’s population in state history.

Four of the new faces in the House hail from legislative districts in Snohomish and Island counties.

There are Paul and Mead, who got in by unseating incumbent Republicans. And there are Democrat Lauren Davis, of Shoreline, and Republican Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, who are taking the seats of retired stalwarts.

Davis, executive director of the Washington Recovery Alliance, will succeed a friend and mentor, Democratic Rep. Ruth Kagi. Davis is embracing the nickname “Baby Ruth” as she looks to continue Kagi’s pioneering work in early learning.

Sutherland is filling the seat of Rep. Dan Kristiansen, the former House Minority Leader. Sutherland, a retired scientist, will be serving in elected office after coming up short in three previous tries.

In the Senate, Democrat Jesse Salomon, of Shoreline, will be taking the place of Sen. Maralyn Chase, of Edmonds, whom he beat in November.

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, (front) chats with incoming House freshmen from Snohomish County (from left), Democrat Dave Paul, of Oak Harbor, Republican Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, and Democrat Jared Mead, of Mill Creek, before an orientation session at the Capitol. The three men will be sworn into office Monday, at the start of the 2019 legislative session. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, (front) chats with incoming House freshmen from Snohomish County (from left), Democrat Dave Paul, of Oak Harbor, Republican Robert Sutherland, of Granite Falls, and Democrat Jared Mead, of Mill Creek, before an orientation session at the Capitol. The three men will be sworn into office Monday, at the start of the 2019 legislative session. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The Big Picture

Democrats will have a stronger grip on the levers of legislating power after gaining seats in the November election.

They will enjoy a 57-41 advantage on Republicans in the House and 28-21 in the Senate. Last session, Democrats had a two-seat edge in the House and only one seat in the Senate.

With the governor, the Democrats will have a trifecta of political power that they hope to use to toughen climate change regulations, transform the state’s mental heath system, expand access to health care, protect orcas, strengthen gun control laws, improve public school funding, reduce homelessness and pass a statewide transportation package.

“Everything we’re asked to do is worthy of doing,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. “The biggest challenge for leadership is managing expectations. We’d like to solve everything and it ain’t easy.”

Or inexpensive. Inslee is calling for a new capital gains tax and a hike in the tax rate on service businesses. It’s not clear if the House and Senate will go along.

“It’s going to be a really tough budget,” said Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, who will be one of her caucus’ lead budget writers. “We just have a lot of needs as the state grows. It’ll be interesting to see if we are able to move any progressive tax reform. At this point there is not a clear path.

Higher ambition

This session will play out amid some intriguing dramas.

Inslee is eyeing a run for president and is working to raise his national profile while continuing to carry out his present day-to-day duties.

House Speaker Frank Chopp will be giving up the leadership job when the session ends. There will be a spirited internal competition for the post. And in the Senate, a veteran Democratic senator is under investigation for his behavior toward a state agency official with whom he once was intimate.

Already, some Republican lawmakers are poking the governor, insinuating his agenda is unrealistic and designed to impress voters in other states.

At a legislative preview event hosted by The Associated Press this week, Inslee was asked by reporters if Washington residents can count on getting his full attention this session.

“You bet,” he said.

House Minority Leader JT Wilcox, R-Yelm, speaking earlier at the event, didn’t sound too worried.

“Our system is designed for accommodating the ambitions of individual politicians,” he said. “I’m sure that we will function but I think it makes it more difficult to really concentrate on good government when you’ve got a lot of people looking at the next position.”

There are lawmakers who expect Inslee will be more engaged this year than past years because he’s got something to prove.

“I would imagine he has more skin in the game,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo. “The more we get done and the more we get passed, the better everyone will look.”

Rep.-elect Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline (center), hands out candy to colleagues before the start of an orientation session for new House members Wednesday at the Capitol. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Rep.-elect Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline (center), hands out candy to colleagues before the start of an orientation session for new House members Wednesday at the Capitol. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The Big Issues

Unlike past years, leaders of the four caucuses seem to be more in sync on what issues will get attention. How the parties address them will differ.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said that gives him “a basis of optimism for the session. We’ve been in a position in the past when we couldn’t agree on what the problems were.”

Taxes will be the most clearly divisive matter, with Republicans prepared to resist the proposals now getting mentioned.

Climate change could be problematic too. Democrats want laws requiring the state to generate power solely from non-fossil fuel sources while Republicans will offer a different approach to increasing the use of renewable resources. Establishing a new low-carbon fuel standard will be a hot topic.

There is bipartisan agreement on the need to improve the delivery of mental and behavioral health services and to replace Western State Hospital, the aging state psychiatric hospital in Pierce County. Exactly what types of treatment facilities to build and where to get the money to replace the state hospital are points of contention.

“We are all in agreement that we’ve got to do something. What we’ve done hasn’t been working,”said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, who will serve on a new committee that will focus on the challenge.

He applauded the governor for seeking $675 million in his budget to address the needs but said he does not agree with creating a capital gains tax.

“I hope we can find the money in the existing operating and capital budget,” he said.

Revising state laws to increase the supply of housing and making sure existing dollars are used efficiently to reduce homelessness are concerns shared by Democrats and Republicans.

Billig and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, both endorsed rewriting liability rules blamed for stifling construction of condominiums at the legislative preview.

There were bipartisan endorsements of steering more dollars from the capital budget into affordable housing projects.

A coalition of building groups and the Washington Association of Realtors is pushing for revising the Growth Management Act to encourage denser housing being built in urban growth areas — an idea embraced by Republicans and some moderate Democrats.

“We have to remember the GMA is not the Ten Commandments. It can be amended periodically,” Schoesler said.

On transportation, Democrats and Republicans agree that there are many projects in need of doing around the state. In Snohomish County alone, the list includes dealing with the U.S. 2 trestle, and highways 9 and 522.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is trying to cobble together a transportation package that can garner political support.

The session starts Monday and is scheduled to end April 28.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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