Legislators tackling ‘a lot of little stuff’ during quick 60-day session

OLYMPIA — A new legislative session gets under way Monday with public school funding poised to again garner much of state lawmakers’ attention.

But it won’t be the only flashpoint.

Anger at the mistaken early release of convicted criminals, frustration with a legal threat to charter schools and concerns about the budget impacts of a carbon tax initiative will incite debate, and maybe action.

The 60-day session promises a hectic pace. Ending on time will be an unspoken goal of lawmakers who in 2015 labored through three extra sessions into July before finishing.

“Everyone is coming in with a commitment to get things done in 60 days,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “It is a short session. There is no reason for us to stay late.”

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, will be a key figure as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. In this job, he’ll craft the supplemental budget proposal for the majority House Democrats.

“There will be a lot of energy about getting something done and we’ll end up doing a lot of little stuff,” he said. “Most people are saying let’s just cobble together a budget and get out of here.”

Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate each arrive with a relatively short list of matters they said need addressing in the 60-day session.

Among them are:

  • Agreeing on a path to fully fund public schools by the 2018 deadline set by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary case. A bipartisan work group released a bill Friday intended to be the vehicle. It sets up a task force to gather data on how each school district spends its local levy dollars and what are each district’s need in terms of new classrooms and schools. It vows that by the end of the 2017 session, lawmakers will act to relieve districts of their reliance on local levies to pay salaries.
  • Adopting a supplemental budget that covers costs of fighting last summer’s wildfires and enables the state to comply with a federal court mandate to reduce wait times for evaluating mentally ill offenders locked up in county jails.
  • Amending the voter-approved charter school law to solve constitutional problems cited by the state Supreme Court. Bills with bipartisan support will be introduced to make fixes and assure existing schools continue operating.
  • Requiring that the Department of Corrections adopt redundant procedures for determining prison sentences to prevent a recurrence of inmates getting mistakenly released early due to a software error.

There are a number of other simmering issues.

Voters passed Initiative 1366 in November but lawmakers will likely ignore it until a legal challenge to the measure is resolved.

Under I-1366, the state portion of the sales tax will drop by a penny in April unless lawmakers put a constitutional amendment on the ballot requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass new or higher taxes.

While Republicans embrace the constitutional amendment, Democratic leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee view the initiative as unconstitutional and are content to wait on the Supreme Court to decide its fate.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, cautioned that if the court doesn’t act by April and state revenues begin falling, lawmakers will be summoned into special session.

“We cannot overlook this,” he said Thursday at the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview. “We do need to prepare.”

In education, many districts require money to build classrooms after the state expanded all-day kindergarten and reduced class sizes in elementary grades. Dunshee and Smith said they will be looking for ways to free up some dollars.

There’s a shortage of teachers, too. Inslee wants to close some tax breaks and use the money to give teachers a pay hike. Legislative leaders aren’t warm to that idea.

House Speaker Frank Chopp said Thursday he thinks it is better to deal with it in 2017 as part of the overall solution in the McCleary case.

While legislative leaders keep watch on the major issues, their members will arrive with their own agendas.

Brace for bills on impeaching the state auditor, banning fireworks and regulating pay-to-play fantasy sports.

There could be hearings on legislation to revamp the new express toll lanes on I-405, bar the use of “Redskins” for school athletic team names and overturn a state rule ensuring transgender people can use the public bathroom of the gender they identify with.

Expect a steady stream of news conferences and acts of partisan gamesmanship in the next two months.

This is, after all, an election year with all 98 seats in the House and roughly half of the 49 in the Senate on the ballot in November.

Power is evenly divided in the Legislature. Democrats hold a 50-48 edge in the House while Republicans own a 26-23 advantage in the Senate. Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, caucuses with Republicans.

With such equal numbers, neither party wants to cede any advantage to the other, be it rhetorical, philosophical or political.

But party leaders sounded optimistic Thursday that electioneering won’t be an impediment anymore than it ever is.

“We have a lot of work together ahead of us,” Kristiansen said. “Yes, this is still a political place. But if we bear down, focus and stay focused I think we cannot only do the things in the supplemental budget that is intended to be done this year but also I think we can be successful in dealing with some of the other huge issues.”

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

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