by John Stafford
The 2018 Washington State Legislative Session is now underway. There are two types of legislative sessions: long, 105-day sessions in odd-numbered years (e.g., 2017), in which the state’s operating, transportation and capital budgets are created; and short, 60-day sessions In even-numbered years (e.g., 2018), in which small adjustments are made to these budgets in order to accommodate changes in economic growth, inflation, caseloads, etc. Thus, this will be a short, 60-day session, although it will be a complicated one, as there is much to accomplish. This article will discuss five themes and 12 areas of legislation in the 2018 Session.
There are several key themes for the 2018 Legislative Session:
- First, this session will be focused, to a considerable extent, on trying to finish unfinished business from the 2017 Legislative Session, including the Capital Budget and McCleary funding (both discussed further below). The Everett’s Daily Herald Net writes, “State lawmakers begin new session with old problems to solve.”1
- Second, with Manka Dhingra’s State Senate victory in the 45th Legislative District, the Democratic Party now controls all three branches of state government – the governorship, the Senate and the House – for the first time since 2012. This provides Democrats with a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate inspiring, progressive leadership. The critical question is whether Democrats will exercise their newfound power in an assertive manner; or whether they will adopt a cautious approach designed to allow them to further expand their seat advantage in the 2018 elections. In my view, this is a false choice. I believe both the State and the Nation need the Democratic Party to be bold in pushing for transformative, progressive change on the major issues of our day (e.g., climate change, income inequality, health care, etc.). I believe that in so doing, the party will end up attracting more, not fewer, voters, because it will be providing a compelling alternative to the absurd GOP policy that dominates our era.
- Third, the entire West Coast (Washington, Oregon and California) is now completely controlled by the Democratic Party – a “Blue Wall.” This creates opportunities to collaborate on multi-state projects, most notably in the area of climate change, where innovative things are already occurring (e.g., California is considering banning the purchase of new internal combustion engines by 2040; Oregon has made the use of coal for electricity production illegal; Portland has instituted climate science into its K-12 curriculum; etc.).
- Fourth, Republicans will have to decide how aggressive to be in an obstructionist role. They will assess how forceful they can be in thwarting the Democratic agenda without damaging their own prospects in the 2018 elections.
- Fifth, there is the perennial question of whether the session will be extended into special session, as it has in seven of the last ten years.
There will be a number of key areas of legislative focus:
- Capital Budget. As noted above, the 2017 State Legislature was supposed to have created three budgets. However, it only passed two — the $4.2 billion Capital Budget was not passed. The reason for this was that the GOP-controlled Senate was unwilling to pass the Capital Budget unless Democrats were willing to revise rural water policy enacted via the Hirst Decision (discussed below). Democrats did not give in to Republican demands, and Republicans did not vote for the Capital Budget. Thus, the Capital Budget was held hostage by the GOP. The fact that Democrats now have a majority in the State Senate will not solve this problem, as passage of the Capital Budget requires a 60% supermajority in order to approve the underlying bonds.
- Hirst Decision: Whatcom Country versus Hirst (2016) is a State Supreme Court Decision that places restrictions on the use of rural water rights in support of housing development. The decision acknowledges environmental, fishing and tribal treaty concerns. Republicans want to relax these restrictions; Democrats want to uphold them. The resolution of this conflict will impinge on prospects for passing the Capital Budget, as Republican leadership continues to maintain that Hirst needs to be addressed before Republicans will support the Capital Budget. Indeed, last week, GOP Senate Minority Leader, Mark Schoesler, stated: “We said Hirst first [before a Capital Budget]…and we meant it. Some people, I guess, didn’t think we meant it.”2
- Supplemental Budget: A central challenge will be passage of the 2018 Supplemental Operating Budget (the document that will update the 2017 Operating Budget). Governor Inslee has released his proposed Supplemental Budget, and it will be part of negotiated settlement with Democrat and Republican drafts.
- McCleary Funding: The Supreme Court has mandated that the State increase funding for K-12 education via its McCleary Decision (2012). In the 2017 Session, significant progress was made in complying with this decision.3 However, the Supreme Court has ruled that the State is one-year behind in fully complying with its demand for increased funding, and that the State must therefore raise roughly $1 billion more in 2018. Inslee’s Supplemental Budget calls for fully funding this obligation. Republicans, however, have balked at this demand, indicating that they may choose to ignore the Supreme Court ruling. For example, Matt Manweller (R, Ellensburg) has stated: “If we just ignore them [the State Supreme Court] for a year, we just come into compliance by ignoring them…So I think we’ll just wait them out.4
- Capital Gains Tax. In prior years, Democrats have advocated for a capital gains tax to provide a new source of progressive revenue in Washington State, and to help finance McCleary compliance. However, it appears that a capital gains tax will not be on this year’s agenda. Crosscut reports, “The GOP has been steadily murmuring that Democrats are chomping at the bit to unleash a capital gains tax. So far, Democrats have not made a public peep about such a measure for the 2018 session. This is despite proposing it annually — and unsuccessfully — for the past several years. Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans are sticking to their ‘no new taxes’ mantra.”5
- Carbon Tax: Governor Inslee has proposed a tax on carbon emissions to deal with the reality of climate change, and there will be other legislative bills introduced to address this issue. That being said, it is far from clear that there is sufficient Democratic support to pass a much-needed carbon tax. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson (D – Maury Island), has stated that in this 60 day session, a carbon tax “is a big lift.”6 On the other hand, there may be some incentive to support a bill in the Legislature, as the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy is planning to put a carbon tax measure on the 2018 ballot that may be even more objectionable to conservatives than legislative alternatives.
- Renewable Energy Standards. Gael Tarleton (D, Ballard), Joe Fitzgibbon (D, Burien) and other Democrats are sponsoring legislation (HB 1334) calling for a significant increase in the portion of the state’s electricity that must be generated using renewable energy. This is another important bill to deal with the realities of climate change.
- Voting Rights: In 2012, Yakima (after being sued by the ACLU) changed its method of voting for city council members from an at-large system (which favors the majority ethnic group) to a district system (which provides much better chances for minority ethnic group representatives to be elected). This change enabled the first three Latina councilmembers in the city’s history to be elected. Since then, a bill has been introduced annually in Olympia to extend this practice statewide. Unfortunately, the bill has not yet passed. With the Democratic control of the Legislature, this could be the year when this proposal finally becomes law statewide.
- Net Neutrality: The recent FCC decision to overturn Obama-era net-neutrality guarantees will lead Democrats to propose legislation to reinstitute net neutrality safeguards at the state level.
- Opiods: Attorney General Bob Ferguson is suing opiod manufacturers for encouraging the excessive writing of opiod prescriptions, while knowing about the product’s dangerous addictive qualities. In addition to the lawsuit, there will be bills introduced by legislators to further regulate opiod prescriptions (by, for example, limiting the duration of initial prescriptions).
- Death Penalty: There is growing, bipartisan support for legislation to make the death penalty illegal in Washington State.
- Legislative Transparency: There is a movement afoot to require legislators to comply with a 1972 Public Records Law (updated in 1992 and amended in 1995) that requires other areas of government to release their basic records of business (e.g., e-mail, texts, calendars, etc.) to the public. Many legislators argue that the 1995 amendment absolves them of the responsibility to comply; but many analysts disagree. A coalition of media companies (including The Seattle Times) has sued to challenge lawmakers’ assertion that they do not need to release their records.
As of the final draft of this article, progress has been made on several of the aforementioned areas of legislative focus. On Friday, January 19, a compromise was reached on the Hirst/Capital Budget negotiations. Governor Inslee signed legislation that allows for some expansion of water-rights for property owners in rural Washington, in order to resolve the Hirst impasse. This, in turn, paved the way for passage of the Capital Budget. In addition, the State Senate passed the Voting Rights Act (ESSB 6002) on Friday, by a margin of 29-19 (with one Senator excused).
The 37th Legislative District’s State Senator, Rebecca Saldana, is a prime sponsor of this bill. The bill is very likely to pass the House, which in prior years has passed earlier versions of this legislation. Finally, a Thurston County Superior Court Judge ruled that the Washington State Public Records Act does apply to State Legislators, providing momentum for the effort to require the broader release of legislative records (this court decision will be appealed).
Other areas of potential legislative focus in the 2018 session include: gun control (e.g., bump stocks made illegal, safe storage requirements); campaign finance (requiring non-profits to register as political committees to enable their campaign contributions to be monitored); repealing the “poison pill” provision that makes transit funding conditional on not raising CAFÉ standards; banning Atlantic salmon net-pen farming; Puget Sound restoration and orca population protection; K-12 curriculum changes that focus on vocational needs; increases in funding for the State Need Grant to finance college; free community college; pay equity for part-time community and technical college faculty; allowing subsidized child care for parents in degree programs; increases in mental health spending; repealing the state ban on rent control; increased funding for earthquake preparedness and wildfire management; increased Medicaid funding; replacing diesel buses with electric versions; ensuring that women are granted abortion coverage via health plans the provide maternity care; and limiting state compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) information requests.
John Stafford is a teacher at Mercer Island High School. He is active with the Democratic Party in South Seattle. He writes periodic columns on politics and public policy for the South Seattle Emerald.
- Jerry Cornfield, State lawmakers begin new session with old problems. Everett, Washington Herald Net (online), January 7, 2018.
- Danny Westneat, State GOP’s Attacks on Seattle Don’t Work. The Seattle Times, January 7, 2018, p. B1.
- The 2017 State Legislature achieved partial compliance with the McCleary Decision via a levy swap that raised K-12 funding, largely by transferring property tax responsibility from local school districts to the state. Although the Supreme Court deemed this to be meaningful compliance, I believe (as I have written previously) that this represents an undesirable funding mechanism as it does not alter the State’s over-reliance on non-progressive taxation.
- Dori Monson, Lawmaker to ‘ignore’ Supreme Court on McCleary. Kiro Radio online, November 17, 2017.
- John Stang, Inslee has a plan to fund schools – but no one else does. Crosscut Online, January 9, 2018.
Jim Camden, The Spokane Spokesman Review, Lands commissioner urges push by state to fight carbon pollution. Reprinted in The Seattle Times, January 6, 2018, p. B7.