Capitol Outlook: Pot, education and a $4 billion shortfall
by Tom James
And they're off!
After a week of grand speeches, lofty promises and one hotly-contested-if-widely-predicted power grab, the 2013 legislative session begins in earnest today. Legislators are set to take up some of the state's most contentious issues this year and discussion about at least three of them — education, taxes and how exactly to deal with Washington's newest legal drug — will open in committee for the first time this week.
For those new to the Legislature, committees are where shy new bills go to introduce themselves. After being read for the first time to the whole House (or Senate, for Senate bills), bills are sent to committees depending on their subject. Once in committee, bills are presented to committee members, who decide whether to send them on for review by the larger group — or nip them in the bud.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, regulators will begin considering one of the biggest questions of the year — how to regulate Washington's newly-legal marijuana market.
Though the legislative session technically began last Monday, the first week was mostly a time for the introduction of new committee members and the first readings of a small handful of bills. That all changes today.
There will still be plenty of introductions happening this week — including general overviews of everything from homelessness to the cost of ferries to the state of the juvenile justice system — but overviews will focus exclusively on concrete issues from here on out. Most of the committees have met their new members and given them at least a meeting or two to get their feet beneath them. Expect bills to start pouring in mid-week.
First thing on the Monday docket: The Senate committee handling rural economic and resource issues will hear about damage from floods and fires near the Chehalis river and in three Eastern Washington counties. Right next door, another will review a draft of a bill adding medical marijuana to the list of things you can't buy with food stamps. On Monday afternoon, a group of senators will hear a bill letting judges ban convicts on probation from using marijuana.
Meanwhile, just across the capitol, the House finance committee will meet for the first time to start hunting for — depending on who you ask — somewhere between two and four billion dollars of extra revenue. Comment has not been forthcoming on whether the committee, headed by House Democrat Reuven Carlyle, has checked under the cushions.
The week continues apace. Tuesday the House higher education committee begins a week-long set of briefings on what kind of skilled workers state industries need, while the Senate healthcare committee hears an overview of the expected costs of Medicaid expansion.
Tuesday and Wednesday also see the first committee introductions of a handful of Republican property-rights bills in the Senate. Two come from Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and take aim at existing growth laws, one restricting cities' ability to expand, the other restricting the ability of the state to seize land for public use. A third, introduced by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, would stop the governor from appointing legislators to the state growth management board in their last year of office — when they may be more likely to make bold moves.
In an offbeat twist, Sens. Benton and Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, are also each introducing inventive bills regarding revenue. Angel's imagines a new source — the naming of public facilities. Under her proposal, agencies would be able to sell the naming rights of public buildings and other infrastructure. Benton's, alternatively, would allow legislators to send newsletters to voters throughout their campaigns using taxpayer dollars. Currently, lawmakers are restricted from using state money to send out certain materials during election season, but Benton's bill would remove all restrictions on the form, size and content of newsletters.
One of the biggest discussions of the session won't be happening at the capitol, however. It will start across town, at 3000 Pacific Ave — the headquarters of Washington's Liquor Control Board. There, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, officials will open the first public meeting on rules for growing and selling the nation's first legal marijuana.
Expect a crowd.