Lawmakers turn to ‘big issues’ as end of regular session looms

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Sunday, March 6, 2016 7:34pm
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — There are deals to make and votes to take as state lawmakers race to wrap up this week.

With the 60-day session set to end Thursday, the House and Senate are still seeking agreement on how to pay for last year’s wildfires, shore up staffing at state psychiatric hospitals and ensure a future for charter schools in Washington.

They also are debating what steps to take to ease a shortage of teachers and state troopers, and to help an increasing number of homeless people.

With negotiations under way on those and other issues, expect a hectic pace these next four days. Most lawmakers want to avoid overtime and any semblance of a repeat of 2015 in which they labored through a record 178 days and three extra sessions.

“Many of these are big issues on which people tend to be on one side or the other,” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “It’s been intense. To get good policy through the filter of politics is always difficult.”

Across the aisle, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, sounded confident about finishing on time. Noting it is an election year, he said not to expect any ground-breaking social or economic policy getting pushed through in the remaining days.

“I didn’t have any high expectations with the governor on the ballot and divided government that we were going to tackle anything very large,” he said. “That’s mostly proven true.”

Several hurdles remain to be scaled by the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-run Senate in the next four days. These include:

Supplemental operating budget

Lawmakers approved a two-year budget last year. A supplemental budget is intended to deal with any new or unforeseen expenses, such as the roughly $175 million tab for battling wildfires last year.

Both chambers agree the bill must be paid. But the House taps into rainy day reserves for the money while the Senate relies on the general fund which pays state government’s day-to-day operations. That’s a key sticking point.

House Democrats also want to dip into that reserve account to give public school teachers a raise, increase services and shelter for the homeless, and provide another year of levy equalization aid to school districts. And the House plan counts on raising money from closing a handful of tax breaks.

Senate Republicans oppose using reserves for all of those purposes. They contend the fund should only be tapped in emergencies and none of those House proposals constitute an emergency. And the Senate plan contains no new taxes.

Mental health

There is bipartisan agreement to boost funding for and legislative oversight of the troubled Western State Hospital. There’s wide disagreement on the amount of money and degree of involvement needed to make a difference.

The state faces a federal court mandate to reduce wait times for evaluating mentally ill offenders locked up in county jails. It also is under federal scrutiny to improve safety of patients at Western.

Proposals in the House and Senate provide different amounts of money to raise salaries, hire additional staff, open new temporary facilities and free up hospital beds by moving some older patients into community care facilities. There are also competing approaches for future monitoring and auditing of the hospitals.

Charter schools

The Senate passed a bill amending the voter-approved charter school law to solve constitutional problems cited by the Supreme Court. That bill would keep existing schools open.

But many House Democrats oppose charter schools and reject the Senate approach. Five members of the Democratic caucus are trying to craft compromise language capable of winning bipartisan support.

Retaining state troopers

Lawmakers are considering several steps to improve the ability of the Washington State Patrol to recruit and retain troopers. Some involve reviewing the management structure and the application process.

One of the differences between the House and Senate centers on trooper pay.

House Democrats want to give troopers a raise this year and tie their future salary hikes to what their peers earn in other large law enforcement agencies including the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department. Senate Republicans are backing a smaller raise and do not want to link salaries with what other agencies pay their officers.

This disagreement must get resolved through the supplemental transportation budget which is the source of funding for Washington State Patrol salaries. A deal could be announced as early as Monday.

I-405 express toll lanes

Surprisingly, this isn’t turning out to be a political obstacle. There is money to improve the flow of traffic along the 17-mile stretch of toll lanes in both the House and Senate supplemental transportation budgets.

But until a final budget is passed, everything is theoretically at risk.

In sizing up the situation, House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said the biggest challenge is the differences in the budgets put forth by the majority party in each chamber. But they are not irreconcilable differences.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be out of here except for the stubbornness on both sides,” he said.

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

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