OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers return to Olympia on Monday with a new governor, a new Senate majority leader and a new batch of contentious issues.
But some things are still the same: Another budget shortfall is looming and there’s more intrigue in the state Senate. Here’s a look at the top things to watch this year:
In response to a state Supreme Court ruling that said the Legislature isn’t adequately funding education, many lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee are looking to add at least $1 billion to education this year. It’s not clear where that money’s coming from. Some legislators say new taxes are on the table as an option while Inslee says general tax increases are unnecessary. Adding to the complication is that the state budget is already out of balance by another $1 billion, so political leaders need to fund cuts or revenues to solve the general budget along with adding the new cash for education. The state’s universities, meanwhile, have suggested they can prevent tuition increases if they get $225 million more in funding.
In a state Senate coup that gives the GOP more power, Republicans have coalesced around Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom as the new Senate leader, even though his liberal social views put him at odds with many in the new caucus. That new majority has vowed to focus on budget-sustainability issues, but the sustainability of the coalition is also an issue. Lawmakers are sure to discuss touchy political issues such as abortion and gun control.
David Nice, a professor of political science at Washington State University, said the coalition will likely have to struggle through some lawmakers who aren’t as cooperative and the range of opinions among conservatives — some of whom will likely push hard on social issues.
“These bipartisan or quasi-bipartisan coalitions sometimes don’t last very long,” Nice said.
The mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut has triggered a range of policy proposals in Washington state to combat gun violence. On one hand, Republican Rep. Liz Pike has suggested that teachers should be allowed to carry guns at school. On the other, Democrats are interested in prohibiting assault rifles and limiting access to high-capacity magazines. Inslee said the controversial aspects of how to handle guns shouldn’t deter the Legislature from doing some things, such as improving aspects of the state’s mental health laws.
The campaign promises of Gov.-elect Jay Inslee are already hanging over the Legislature. Inslee vowed to veto tax increases that came across his desk, something that budget conservatives have cited repeatedly in recent weeks, and he stuck with his no-tax message this past week. Inslee has yet to describe how he’ll balance state spending or how he’ll be able to find money to give tax breaks to help develop the clean energy industry.
Some political leaders have floated proposals in recent weeks to alter initiatives recently approved by voters. Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst, for example, wants to increase the cost of a license to produce or sell marijuana. Those licenses are set at $1,000 under the initiative. Meanwhile, state Superintendent Randy Dorn wants to change the charter schools measure so that a board that oversees the system would be placed under his control. Inslee noted that voters just approved the measures in November, so he says lawmakers shouldn’t be making changes for minor reasons.
“To me there’s a fairly high bar to get over to change an initiative,” Inslee said.