Legislative staffers watch from the wings of the state House in Olympia on Thursday as votes are tallied on the final day of the regular session of the Legislature. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Legislative staffers watch from the wings of the state House in Olympia on Thursday as votes are tallied on the final day of the regular session of the Legislature. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

In control, Democrats pressed an ambitious agenda in Olympia

Besides school funding and a property-tax cut, they enacted far-ranging progressive laws.

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers arrived in January with a seemingly short list of things needing to get done this year:

Settle a dispute on water rights policy, pass a construction budget and complete the McCleary school funding puzzle after the state Supreme Court concluded a billion-dollar piece was missing.

But Democrats had other designs for the 60-day session that ended Thursday night.

With their two-vote majority in the House, one-vote advantage in the Senate and a Democratic governor, Democrats controlled all the levers of legislating for the first time in Gov. Jay Inslee’s tenure.

They proceeded to undertake an ambitious agenda, passing bills to strengthen worker protections, reform the political system, expand abortion rights, tighten gun restrictions and rewrite the law on use of deadly force by police.

And they muscled through a one-time cut in property taxes in 2019 over the strident objection of Republicans who didn’t like the manner in which its $391 million cost will be covered.

“We had a long list of progressive policies that we passed from equal pay to reproductive parity to a budget that reflects our values,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds. “We got a lot done in 60 days.”

The linchpin turned out to be the Senate, where Democrats, with a 25-24 edge, wanted action on a stack of policies bottled up for five years when Republicans ran the chamber.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, the majority floor leader, said when the session began “there were rumors whether we’d fracture as a caucus and be unable to govern. I think the Democratic caucus stuck together pretty well.”

They wore down Republicans along the way.

“There were a lot of things the other party wanted so they set a very aggressive agenda and passed them,” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “Some were good and some were not so good. We tried very hard to make them better and weren’t always successful.”

There was an unexpected outcome in the final hours Thursday when lawmakers didn’t act to provide some relief for payers of Sound Transit car tabs.

House and Senate Democrats had agreed on changing how Sound Transit calculates the tabs so there would be some savings. But they differed on whether to keep the regional transit authority financially whole. And when Republicans offered a slew of amendments, leaders of the House Democrats decided to wait until next year.

Otherwise, the Legislature did accomplish work that it had to get done as well.

In the first two weeks of the session, Democrats and Republicans teamed up to pass a bill resolving concerns on water rights policy triggered by the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision. And then they approved a construction budget that had been held up until that matter had been handled.

On Thursday, the House and Senate approved a supplemental budget steering roughly $1 billion into education this fall, assuring the state is paying its share of public school costs by a court-imposed deadline. The Senate passed the plan with a 25-24 vote shortly after the House passed it 54-44.

The Democrat-drafted spending plan earmark $776.3 million for salaries of school teachers, staff and administrators in this budget cycle plus another $194 million in the 2019-21 budget to complete the task.

There are additional dollars for special education and $105.2 million is set aside to pay penalties accrued in the McCleary case since August 2015 when the court started fining the Legislature for not meeting its milestones. The fines are to be spent in elementary and secondary schools.

The budget also beefs up funding for behavioral and mental health services. There is new money to pay for improvements at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals, complying with federal court decrees regarding evaluation and treatment for people accused of crimes, and tackling a crisis of opiate abuse.

The budget includes no new taxes and leaves $2.4 billion in total reserves at the end of the current two-year cycle.

The one-time cut in the statewide property tax rate is intended to provide partial relief from the increase approved in 2017 to help pay for schools. Under the bill heading to the governor, the rate will be reduced by 30 cents, from the present $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value to $2.40. In 2020, the rate climbs back to $2.70.

Action on the budget and property tax cut were among the last items on the Democrats’ to-do list.

By then they had already advanced a bill requiring health plans that cover maternity care to also cover abortion. This has been atop the agenda of the governor and Democrats in both chambers for five years.

Other long-stalled bills passed this year will expand automatic voter registration efforts and permit same-day registration. In other words, a person can register as a voter then cast a ballot on Election Day. And legislation dubbed the Voting Rights Act, a Democrat focus for several years, is headed to the governor. This aims to give minorities a greater political voice in their communities.

Also this session, lawmakers made it illegal to make, sell, own or possess a bump-fire stock, a plastic attachment that allows semiautomatic weapons to fire like fully automatic models.

There were many bipartisan accomplishments, too. Lawmakers overwhelmingly established a statewide prescription drug take-back program funded by the pharmaceutical industry rather than taxpayers.

And they made Washington the first state to pass its own net neutrality requirements to keep internet providers from blocking content or impairing traffic. They also passed a bill to phase out farming of Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound waters, a long-established industry that came under fire after tens of thousands of nonnative fish escaped into waterways last summer.

Not everything on the Democrats’ list got done.

A carbon tax failed to reach the floor of either chamber for the sixth straight year. The same fate befell a capital gains tax.

An effort to increase the legal age for buying a semiautomatic rifle failed while a bill to end the use of the death penalty in Washington cleared the Senate but died in the House.

“I think our biggest miss this year was addressing climate change,” Peterson said. “That is going to be a big focus of mine in the interim.”

There was one big bipartisan miscalculation.

Most Democrats and Republicans agreed on a bill that would exempt lawmakers from the state Public Records Act. Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed it following a public outcry in which more than 18,000 people phoned or emailed his office to urge him to stop the legislation.

Republican legislators did record successes, starting with the resolution of the water rights dispute triggered by the Hirst decision.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, also cited the net neutrality bill and huge investments in behavioral and mental health services through the capital construction budget — both of which she helped write.

But like many of her GOP colleagues, she’ll head home with some frustration because Democrats did not involve Republicans on the significant fiscal matters of the operating budget and property tax cut.

“The best work was done when we are invited to the table,” Smith said. “It’s unfortunate with those policies because the 48 percent of the people we represent were locked out of the negotiating process.”

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

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