Washington Legislature: The Special Session Is Where the Action Is

by John Stafford

One would hope that during the 3½ month Regular Session of the Washington State Legislature (January 12 to April 24), most major issues would be addressed, leaving either no remaining work (i.e., adjournment), or a few items to be addressed during the one month Special Session (April 29 to May 28).  This year, that pattern has been inverted.  The Regular Session has ended with no agreement between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate on any of the three major budgets (operating, transportation, capital), nor the financing mechanism to be used to comply with the McCleary decision.  All of these momentous issues will be resolved in the Special Session.  This article provides an overview of the Regular Session — bills that have passed and bills that have not – and then previews the critical issues that will dominate the Special Session.

REGULAR SESSION:  SELECT BILLS THAT DID PASS

Marijuana Reform:  Steps have been taken to regulate the medical marijuana industry, and to harmonize the medical and recreational marijuana legal frameworks.  Key issues include tax simplification, tax reduction (to reduce the size of the black market), special privileges for medical users, and the enforcement of access to these privileges via a voluntary user registry.

WSU Medical School:  Legislation was passed that enables Washington State University to open a medical school in Spokane, ending the University of Washington’s 98 year monopoly on this institution.

Oil Train Shipments:  The new law establishes taxes, shipment notification requirements and spill response plan requirements for oil shipments by rail (but not by pipeline) into Washington State.

Gun Control, etc.:  The Lieutenant Governor banned open-carry guns in the legislative viewing galleries. Legislation was also passed that allows a family to request notification when a confiscated gun is returned to a mentally ill family member (the “Sheena Henderson Act”), and to appeal a state decision to decline to involuntarily commit a mentally ill family member (“Joel’s Law”).

Drones:  Legislation was passed that prohibits the use of drones to collect personal information without a warrant.

Ride-sharing Services:  New legislation both regulates and facilitates the expansion of ride sharing services (e.g., Lyft, Sidecar, Uber, etc.) in the state.

REGULAR SESSION:  SELECT BILLS THAT DID NOT PASS

Minimum Wage:  This bill would have raised the minimum wage to $12 per hour statewide over the next four years.

Sick and Safe Leave:  This legislation would have required employers to provide paid leave to employees for health issues and for personal safety reasons (e.g., domestic violence).

Payday Lending:  This bill would have relaxed current regulations on payday lending.  Proponents argued that this would allow additional credit vehicles; opponents (including myself) argued that the existing regulatory scheme was effective, and that loosening it would allow the charging of exorbitant fees and interest rates on our poorest residents.

Voting Rights Act:  This act, patterned on Yakima precedent, would have extended the use of district-based (rather than at-large) elections statewide.  This would increase minority representation in local government.

Dark Money in Elections:  This legislation, which had strong bi-partisan support in both chambers, was scuttled in the Senate in the final hour.  It would have required non-profit organizations that make large expenditures for political campaigns to disclose their largest donors.

Education Reform:  This bill would have established a model for school districts statewide for the provision of interpretation and translation services to limited English-proficiency families.

Police Cameras:   Legislation in this area dealt with numerous issues, including limiting the use of police body cameras, and regulating the release of the photographic records they create.

E-Cigarettes/Vaping:  Legislation in this area would have raised tax rates for e-cigarettes, precluded their use by minors, and regulated the product (e.g., abolished the use of flavorings).

SPECIAL SESSION:  KEY ISSUES

Operating Budget – Taxation:  The House Budget calls for $1.5 billion in new revenue, while the Senate Budget calls for none.  Options for new taxes are:  a carbon tax via a cap-and-trade system; a capital gains tax on high-income earners; an increase in the business tax for some service businesses; and the elimination of several business tax exemptions.  Each of these proposals will be vehemently contested by the Republican Caucus.

Operating Budget – Other:  There are a variety of other budget issues, including:  teacher salary increases and health care benefits; whether future teacher salary negotiations will occur at the state or local level; the amount of pay increases for state workers; higher education financing, tuition rates, and financial aid (state need grants, college bound grants, etc.); mental health spending; parks spending; etc.

McCleary K-12 Funding:  Here, there are three separate but intertwined issues.  The first is the overall level of increased spending, and the House and Senate budgets are similar (calling for $1.4 billion and $1.3 billion in increased spending, respectively).  The second is the source of the new revenue (see the discussion on taxation, above).  The third is the mechanism for reducing the amount of educational funding that comes from local sources.  Republican Senator Bruce Dammeier wants to shift the tax burden to the Puget Sound region via a property tax increase, a proposal opposed by Democrats.

Transportation Budget:  The House and Senate have each passed transportation budgets, but they have not reached agreement on a final budget.  A major point of contention is the level of funding authority for Sound Transit Phase III (with Democrats calling for full funding authority of $15 billion, and Republicans calling for $11 billion).  In addition, the Senate budget contains a “poison pill” provision that would redirect funds from transit to roads if Governor Inslee enacts a cleaner fuel standard.

Capital Construction Budget:  No agreement has been reached on the Capital Construction Budget.

I-1351:  This initiative, to reduce class sizes, was narrowly passed by voters last November, but did not contain a financing source.  Neither chamber provides full funding for this initiative, which raises the question of whether the initiative will be sent back to voters (the Senate option) or repealed in the Legislature itself (the House option).

OBSERVATIONS

First, as noted previously, the most momentous decisions in the 2015 Legislative Session are still to come in the Special Session.  And there is a distinct possibility that more than one Special Session will be needed to resolve the many polarizing issues.  Second, the pivotal question at the heart of all debate is whether there will be a major new source of revenue in Washington State?  The answer to this question will drive both the Operating Budget and the McCleary funding plan.  Third, the Supreme Court is following the proceedings closely, to determine if the Legislature adequately addresses its McCleary obligations and is therefore no longer held in contempt of court.  Fourth, budget negotiations in Olympia are at an impasse.  Unfortunately, the gridlock that has come to dominate national politics is becoming increasingly prevalent at the state level as well.  Finally, the Special Session provides a second chance for bills that did not pass during the Regular Session, so some of the bills discussed above will re-emerge in the next thirty days (and indeed, many already have).

John Stafford is a substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools and a former management consultant in corporate strategy.  He recently completed a run for State Senate in the 37th District.  He is writing a monthly article on public policy for the South Seattle Emerald.

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