Legislature convenes, looking for dollars to meet demands

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers know the questions they’ll address when the 2015 session begins Monday.

Answering them, however, won’t be easy or cheap.

Legislators are under pressure to respond to a state Supreme Court mandate on education funding, a voter-approved initiative mandating smaller class sizes and a citizenry agitating for fixes for and expansion of the transportation system.

Satisfying those demands could cost billions of dollars the state doesn’t have. So the legislative session’s 105 days — and any extra time — will be largely spent figuring out where that money might come from.

A suggestion by Gov. Jay Inslee, that the money come from new taxes on carbon emissions and capital gains, will certainly color the conversation among lawmakers who have been anticipating the session’s challenges for months.

“It’s a serious mood and a contemplative mood,” Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said of her colleagues’ attitudes. “I see a great earnestness to tackle these issues in a serious way.”

Reaching agreements could prove especially demanding this year because the Legislature is almost evenly split between Democrats (75) and Republicans (72), and each party controls one chamber.

Democrats have a 51-47 edge in the House, their smallest numeric margin since 2002. In the Senate, Republicans hold 25 seats for their first majority since 2004. They will be joined in their caucus by a renegade centrist Democrat.

The near split “forces deliberations and forces conversations that maybe we have not had in the past at this level,” House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said Thursday at an event hosted by The Associated Press. “There is going to be forced dialogue. There is going to be forced compromise if we are going to get out of here in 105 days.”

Budget battles

The overriding task is writing new operating, capital-construction and transportation budgets for state government for the two-year period starting July 1.

The spotlight will be on the operating budget, which covers the day-to-day costs of state agencies and provides dollars for public schools and colleges.

That is where new revenue will go as the Legislature seeks to comply with the so-called McCleary state Supreme Court case. Justices ordered the state government to pay the full price of basic education in public schools to comply with the state constitution.

Justices in September found lawmakers in contempt for failing to submit a plan as to how they will comply by a 2018 deadline. But the court put off punishing them to see what happens this session.

Democrats are talking about adding another $1.3 billion to schools, plus at least $250 million to give teachers a cost-of-living raise, which voters mandated when they passed Initiative 732 in 2000. A budget proposed by Inslee in December outlines a similar approach on McCleary.

Republicans say $750 million is the sum needed in the next biennium to meet requirements of existing law and to satisfy the court. But their leaders aren’t closing the door on putting in more.

“The baseline of what we have to do is $750 million,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “Will we go above and beyond? That is something we negotiate.”

How to deal with Initiative 1351, passed in November, which requires fewer students in classes at every grade level, is the other major education matter. The price tag is roughly $2 billion this biennium, and legislative leaders in both parties don’t believe that can be covered in the next budget.

So there’s talk of amending or suspending the ballot measure, an action that will require approval by a two-thirds majorities in both chambers.

Transportation is the other thorny and pricey matter. The two-year roads budget won’t be controversial, as there won’t be any major new projects in it.

The fight will be about whether to raise billions of dollars for building roads, bridges and ferries and increasing money for buses and other forms of mass transit.

Inslee proposed 12-year, $12 billion package would be underwritten with the proceeds of a tax on carbon emissions.

All eyes will be on the Senate, where Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the transportation committee, has said he’ll try to push out something early in the session. House Democrats are poised to act, too.

What might capture much attention in the first weeks are Inslee’s tax proposals, which would pay for schools and roads.

His carbon-tax idea is opposed by Republicans and is getting a lukewarm reception from many Democrats. And while GOP members aren’t enamored of a capital gains tax, many Democrats like the concept.

“We don’t have a fair tax system,” House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, told reporters Thursday. “It clearly would level the playing field.”

Hill criticized it as too volatile a source of dollars for education, to which Inslee responded that “the alternative is zero” if nothing is done.

“Eventually, people are going to need to come up with their own solutions,” Inslee said.

Other issues

Lawmakers will debate more than just education, transportation and tax issues. Among the others will be:

Mental-health treatment: The state is under a court mandate to end the practice known as psychiatric boarding, in which mentally ill people are involuntarily held in hospital emergency departments until an inpatient bed is available. This means money must be spent to provide the beds and staff needed to serve the patients.

Marijuana merger: A strong push will be made to meld largely unchecked medical marijuana operations into the highly regulated recreational marijuana industry.

Minimum wage: An attempt will be made to boost the minimum wage statewide — or at least the wages paid to those working under contracts with the state.

State worker pay: Inslee negotiated pay raises with state workers that will cost around $600 million. Republicans are balking at that sum but realize state workers have gone without pay hikes for several years due to the recession.

Firearms: Opponents of the new voter-approved background-check law want to remove or revise some provisions. Meanwhile, a bill might be pushed to hold gun owners responsible if their weapons end up in the hands of juveniles and are used to harm others.

Water quality: Inslee will urge legislation banning the use of certain materials by businesses to keep their toxic content out of streams, rivers and other waterways.

One special session or two?

There is no shortage of optimism that lawmakers can answer the major questions in the allotted 105 days and adjourn on time.

History shows such optimism will evaporate as legitimate differences surface between Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural lawmakers, and eventually the House, Senate and governor.

While lawmakers finished on time in 2014, they had multiple sessions, and the government nearly shut down, in 2013 because of budget disagreements.

Sandeep Kaushik, a Democratic campaign strategist, said the coming session is a chance for lawmakers and the governor to show they can govern together.

“It is a test for Gov. Inslee and Democrats,” Kaushik said. “It is also a test for Republicans who can’t just be the ‘party of no.’ They have to demonstrate a good-faith effort to solve these big problems. If both parties can do that, then both parties can benefit.”

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

Lawmakers convene in Olympia

Gov. Jay Inslee will deliver the State of the State address Tuesday.

The Marysville Pilchuck High School choir will perform, and chaplain Joel Johnson of the Oso Fire Department will deliver the invocation.

The event begins at noon. The state TV channel, TVW, will broadcast and stream the event at www.tvw.org.

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