OLYMPIA — When John Koster is sworn in as a state representative Monday, he’ll be returning to a political job he left 17 years ago.
To hear the Arlington Republican speak, it’s pretty much the same institution he served in for three terms back then, aside from newer technology and more committees.
‘”When they gave us the list I wondered where the heck did these committees come from,” he said, laughing. “Seriously, we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues we were dealing with in the ‘90s. And around here it is still definitely about building relationships to get things done.”
Those personal ties will need to be extra sturdy to endure the 2017 session which begins Monday. It promises to be bumpy and unpredictable through 105 scheduled days and, almost certainly, one or more special sessions.
Lawmakers’ foremost challenge is devising a method and means of funding public schools in line with the tenets of the state Constitution and dictates of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
They also will debate ways to reform Washington’s mental health system and stitch up a social safety net through which increasing numbers of homeless and drug-addicted individuals have been slipping through.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s call for new taxes on carbon emissions and capital gains and a hike in the tax rate paid by service businesses is already inciting rhetorical combat among lawmakers who’ve been anticipating this session’s challenges for months.
“Fundamentally, this is a situation where legislators of both parties are all in the same boat,” Inslee said Thursday at the Associated Press’s annual session preview. “Both the left and right side need to row this year so the boat doesn’t go in circles. If they both take an oar we’re going to get this job done.”
And if that’s not enough, many lawmakers are worried about potential fallout from the other Washington should Republican President-elect Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act, tear up trade agreements and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, who, like Koster, is returning for a second tour of legislative service, said he can’t wait to get started.
“We all know it’s going to be a long session,” he said “It will probably be the most exciting session in a long, long, long time.”
Lawmakers’ chief task is writing new operating, capital and transportation budgets for state government for the two-year period starting July 1, 2017.
Much of the focus will be on the operating budget, which covers the day-to-day costs of state agencies and is where the dollars will come from for public schools.
No one expects an on-time finish. On Inslee’s watch, negotiations on the state budgets in 2013 and 2015 didn’t conclude until late June. Each time state agencies prepped for a potential shutdown of non-essential services.
Reaching agreement will continue to be elusive as Democrats and Republicans each control a chamber.
Democrats hold a 50-48 majority in the House while Republicans own a 25-24 edge in the Senate because a centrist Democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is part of their caucus.
Snohomish County, the third most-populous county in the state, is carved up into seven legislative districts. It is represented by 21 lawmakers, of whom 14 serve in the House and seven in the Senate. Its delegation includes 14 Democrats and seven Republicans.
In addition to Koster and Lovick, there are two other newcomers: Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, who fills the seat of the retired Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe; and Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, who succeeds Rep. Luis Moscoso.
Since early December, Palumbo said he’s been “trying to learn the nuts and bolts. There are a lot of people who provide advice. I am just trying to soak up every piece of advice I can.”
The McCleary matter
It is no secret lawmakers’ priority is figuring out, by the end of the 2017 session, how the state will ensure public schools are amply and sustainably funded by the court-imposed deadline of Sept. 1, 2018.
There have been additional dollars put into schools the last four years. Now lawmakers need to come up with more money to cover the cost of salaries of teachers, principals and classified staff and end school districts’ reliance on local levies to pay a portion of those wages.
Inslee’s answer is his $5.2 billion tax plan. The total includes $4.4 billion for education, of which $2.7 billion is McCleary-related. It is the focus of everyone’s attention, though that will change when the House and Senate release their spending plans in late March or early April.
“It is the governor’s opening offer,” Palumbo said. “I assume the Senate MCC (Majority Coalition Caucus) will come out with something in the other extreme. We’ll end up somewhere in the middle. I hope we get to the middle by the end of the regular session.”
Republicans are careful to not summarily dismiss the potential of raising additional revenue for schools. They are convinced, however, the governor’s package is excessive.
“Every year the sky is going to fall if we don’t have the biggest tax increase in history,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told reporters at the AP event Thursday. “I still don’t believe the biggest tax increase in history is absolutely necessary to prevent the sky from falling on our children.”
Koster said the eventual outcome will probably be unsatisfying to many folks.
“There’s no single easy fix for McCleary,” Koster said. “If we leave Olympia and everybody is a little upset with the Legislature, we probably did the right thing.”
More than McCleary
Lawmakers will wrestle with a number of other issues beyond school funding, including:
• Mental health services: The state has been found to be violating constitutional rights of mentally ill people by forcing them to wait in jails, sometimes for months, before they receive competency evaluations or treatment to restore their ability to assist in their defense. And federal authorities are monitoring operations of Western State Hospital, where the safety and security of staff and patients has been an issue for several years.
Inslee’s proposed budget provides money to hire staff to speed up evaluations and begin to move individuals not accused of crimes out of the psychiatric hospital and into communities to receive care.
• Homelessness and opioid addiction: Everett and Snohomish County, along with many cities and counties, are pressing for more state funds so they can provide additional housing options as well as mental health and drug treatment services. They want to increase the document-recording fee on housing transactions that is a key source of dollars for homelessness programs.
• Deadly force: There will be renewed efforts to rewrite a state law to make it less difficult to charge an officer with a crime after an incident in which he or she wrongfully kills someone.
Under the existing law, an officer can’t be held criminally liable for using deadly force if he or she acted “without malice” and with a “good faith” belief that the actions were justified. The Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing panel narrowly recommended the terms “malice” and “good faith” be removed. A bill authored by Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, would enact the change.
Snohomish County issues
In Snohomish County, some lawmakers will seek money for Washington State University to increase enrollment in its engineering programs in Everett. Other lawmakers are going to work to get rid of the I-405 express toll lanes and find money for transportation projects for places like Highway 9 and Highway 522.
Lovick can’t wait to get started. And he’s been tapped as a deputy speaker pro tem, which means he’ll be wielding the gavel for some of the House floor sessions as he did before.
“I’m ready. I’m excited,” he said. “If you can’t get excited about serving in the Legislature, you don’t have a pulse.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos