OLYMPIA — A trove of policy disputes, a bit of political tension and a historic leadership change await lawmakers Monday when they begin a 60-day session.
Voters made clear in November they want to pay less for their car tabs, and lawmakers are feeling some heat to craft a response.
While the fate of Initiative 976 is in the hands of judges, legislators say they must figure out what to do if the state loses a bundle of money for its transportation system, should it be upheld.
Lawmakers also will be wrangling on proposals to provide shelter to more people who are homeless, fight climate change with a new clean fuel standard and ban assault weapons.
In the meantime, there may be uncomfortable momentsMonday surrounding Republican Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane Valley.
A House-commissioned report issued last month concluded Shea promoted and engaged in armed anti-government protests in Nevada, Idaho and Oregon in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The report described such activities as domestic terrorism.
Shea said Friday he has been “falsely accused” and he vowed not to resign. There’s nervous anticipation of whether Shea’s friends in far-right political groups will show up on opening day to vociferously defend their legislative ally.
And Monday will bring an historic change of command in the House.
For the first time in a generation, there will be a new speaker, and for the first in the state’s history, it will be a woman.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, will take the reins of power that Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, had held since the turn of the century. How she guides the caucus, including its response to Shea, will be closely watched.
And don’t forget this is an election year. All 98 House seats and roughly half the 49 Senate seats are on the ballot this year. This usually means lawmakers steer wide of politically touchy matters in order to finish on time.
“This is going to be a sprint,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo.
The To-Do List
Democrats will continue to rule the legislative roost. They outnumber Republicans 57-41 in the House and hold a 28-21 edge in the Senate. With Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the party enjoys a trifecta of political power.
Both parties seem in sync on the need to prepare for the potential loss of money due to Initiative 976.
Inslee had the Department of Transportation pause the start of new projects, to slow spending and buy the Legislature time to craft a game plan.
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said at a recent forum in Everett that if the car tab initiative is found constitutional, it will carve a roughly $450 million hole in the current state transportation budget. Figuring out how to plug it is going to require bipartisan agreement.
One solution offered by Republicans is to divert sales tax paid on purchases of new cars out of the general fund and into the transportation budget. They would phase it in. They insist it won’t mean trimming investments in any existing government programs.
Inslee has called it a “nonstarter” and Hobbs predicted it won’t survive a vote in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Another transportation matter is Inslee’s push for a low carbon fuel standard. On this, the governor will run into opposition from Hobbs.
House Democrats passed a bill last year that died in the Senate Transportation Committee.
“I think it is much more likely to pass this Legislature this year,” Inslee said Thursday at the Associated Press Legislative Preview. He said it will have only a “minor impact” on the cost of gasoline and is a better approach than imposing fees on carbon emissions or creating a cap-and-trade system — ideas he’s previously proposed.
Hobbs contends a fuel standard will push up gas prices and prove to be a more expensive way to reduce emissions than either carbon fees or cap-and-trade. Also, he told civic leaders in Everett that imposing a clean fuel standard would make it harder to pass another multi-year transportation package to pay for major projects, like replacing the U.S. 2 trestle and complying with a U.S. Supreme Court order to remove fish passage barriers.
Another issue drawing bipartisan interest is homelessness. Revising state laws to increase the supply of housing, as well as making sure existing dollars are being used efficiently to reduce the number of homeless people, are concerns shared by Democrats and Republicans.
Inslee is proposing to siphon $319 million from emergency reserves, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, for a state-driven effort to reduce the number of people living outside by 50 percent in the next two years.
His blueprint calls for the state, working with cities, counties and nonprofits, to add 2,100 beds in local shelters, give housing assistance to 2,300 people, and provide supportive housing for 1,080.
“This is a statewide crisis, and it calls for a statewide solution,”’ Inslee said Thursday.
Democratic and Republican leaders on Thursday acknowledged the need for a response, but rejected using emergency reserves to pay for it. Inslee said he wasn’t wedded to the source of funds, as long as the dollars are not obtained by cutting other programs.
A couple of popular Democratic ideas — a capital gains tax and an assault weapons ban — may not happen.
“We’re in a short 60-day session so any kind of revenue would have to be pretty much vetted” and ready to go, Jinkins said Thursday. “We’ll have to see” if the work is done and if members are motivated, she added.
On a bill to ban assault weapons, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said “it is too early” to say if it has a chance. The priority, he said, is making sure the background check system is functioning.
Behind the curtain
This year’s session will play out against a backdrop of political dramas.
In the House, the fate of Shea, a six-term lawmaker, will consume time and energy to determine
Republican leaders already kicked him out of their caucus. Democrats want to expel him from the Legislature. That would require a two-thirds majority, which means getting votes from nine Republicans. There are no signs yet of that happening.
“I don’t know how this is going to end up,” said Jinkins, who backs expulsion.
In the Senate, concerns persist regarding public comments by Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, that she heard “hate, misogyny and racism and sexism” from her Democratic colleagues in caucus meetings behind closed doors. A report from the Senate’s human resources officer concluded the statement was false.
Republican senators say there should be consequences for any senator found to have made false accusations against other senators such as requiring a public apology or receiving a written reprimand. Billig said his caucus has acted. It held a retreat to focus on institutional racism, which is the concern Das has since said was the target of her comments.
“I think the action that has been taken has been appropriate,” Billig said.
Another unknown is whether lawmakers will behave any differently knowing their emails and other records are now subject to public disclosure.
A landmark Supreme Court ruling in December made clear the Public Records Act applies to legislators. Before the decision, several lawmakers worried disclosure of their records could stifle the exchange of ideas with constituents and lobbyists in the course of writing legislation.
The 2020 session will formally begin at noon Monday.