Olympia Preview: 5 issues to watch in 2014
by Joe Copeland
Under the Dome Story Branding Credit: Kate Thompson
Credit: Allyce Andrew
No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.
Twain would have torn his crazy white hair out during last year’s protracted legislative session, when democracy itself seemed at risk. Or at least edging into territory worthy of the great satirist's attention. Olympia 2013 was about gridlock and procedural hijinks that persisted through a 105-day regular session and two, count 'em two 30-day special sessions. Olympia came close to a D.C.-style partial shutdown.
We’re hoping that lawmakers have learned a bit about comity and collaboration — maybe even sipped a little bipartisan KoolAid — during their months-long legislative hiatus, which ends Monday. Anything to get the gears of government grinding more smoothly in 2014. After all, even though this is not a budget wrangling year, there'is still a lot to do. The big question: Will lawmakers do it together? Will 2014 be the year they bridge the political chasm or deepen the divide?
Here are the five big issues we’ll be keeping a close eye on this year. We invite you to watch along with us.
The 2014 session starts with a sigh of relief: No budget crisis. Lawmakers don't have to haggle over cuts to the state’s $33.4 billion pot. They just have to argue over how much to save vs. how much to spend. A rare, albeit mandatory, area of potential agreement is spending more for the public school improvements ordered by the state Supreme Court in its McCleary decision. Expect bickering over precisely how much the public schools will get.
Overall, Democrats will push harder for new money, not just for schools but for social and mental health services. Republicans will respond with arguments about saving for the (inevitable) rainy days ahead, and push back hard for pension reforms that save taxpayer money at the expense of public workers. Certain to come up in the wake of the vote by Boeing machinists to give up their pensions: Should lawmakers switch their pensions to 401-k plans?
That’s not the only Boeing afterglow: Those ginormous, build-it-here-please, tax breaks the Legislature and governor happily handed Boeing did not go unnoticed by tech, ag and other state business sectors, who are now eager to get lawmakers’ ears. Already new House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen is arguing that "what’s good for one should be good for all." Ka-ching!
Why you should care? Because no state income tax means Washington depends on revenue from business, sales and property taxes to fund essential government services. Legislators are in constant scramble mode trying to balance the burden on businesses with the costs of public education, mental health care, environmental protection and the like. Lean too far in either direction and the economy slips or human misery mounts — more likely both.
This is the Evergreen State and we like it clean. That’s one thing you can get agreement on in Olympia. Beyond that, lawmakers don't even speak the same language.
On climate, the differences are so vast that Gov. Jay Inslee's efforts to strike a deal with Republicans on serious climate action are probably DOA. Expect lots of posturing, alternative proposals and maybe some executive orders from the governor (which could induce GOP fainting spells).
Water quality issues have a better chance of bipartisan movement, especially in the wake of a new study showing measurable deterioration in Bellingham Bay. Environmental groups warn that the rapid increase in oil trains and the increased risk potential for spills and explosions threaten waterways and towns across the state. Boeing and other Washington manufacturers fear — and are sure to lobby against — the imposition of tougher water quality standards and the costs associated with them.
Why you should care? It’s the nest, stupid. We shouldn’t soil it. Can we rise to the challenge of our time and find a way to manufacture stuff without ruining the environment? Yes we can!
Schools love money. Who doesn't? This year there's some extra dollars to spend, and a new order from the state Supreme Court that scolds lawmakers for failing (flagrantly) to meet the state's constitutional mandate to amply fund public schools. The court made its position on this funding issue crystal clear in the 2012 McLeary decision. Not justices want a full report (by April 30), detailing how the Legislature and the governor intend to scale up support.
Almost immediately after the order came out, state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn released a new education funding proposal. Dorn's plan is built around a 1 cent increase in the state sales tax, which would kick on Jan. 1, 2018 if the Legislature doesn't come through. Total boost in education spending: $7.5 billion. Now, that got Olympia's attention.
Less palatable for teachers is the legislative interest in making student test results a mandatory part of teacher evaluations. Schools have long resisted pairing the two. But a threat from the feds to make Washington get in line with federal law on this issue could force even Democrats most beholden to the teachers union to vote for tougher evaluation requirements.
Why you should care? Because it's kids! Who grow up to be adults. Who pay for your social security! If they have jobs. Even legislators who complain about overpaying teachers — as if we're even close to that horror — admit kids will benefit from more spending on education. If we do it right. A well-educated workforce is a bottom-line draw for the kind of 21st century industries Washington wants to attract and keep happy, not to mention the path to a more civil and sustainable state.
The kids at risk
Speaking of kids, lawmakers just barely managed to maintain the current support levels for Washington's foster kids and families. With that bullet dodged, at least for now, Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park and a longtime youth champion, wants to continue with the incremental efforts to help foster kids through a very vulnerable time. That would be when they turn 18 and "age-out" of the foster care system. Large numbers of them wind up on the streets soon afterward. Last session, lawmakers added support for foster kids, age 18-21, who are still in school (college or vocational training). Proposals before the Legislature this year would extend benefits to aged-out foster kids who are underemployed and those with significant medical or developmental difficulties.
The other foster care challenge this session is legal. Washington remains one of the worst states in the country when it comes to providing lawyers for kids who find themselves alone because their parents have given up — or been denied by the courts — their parental rights. The Legislature has a bill before it that would mandate legal representation for these kids. The bill passed the House last year, but died in the Senate.
Why you should care? Because kids aren't chattel. They may be young, but they still have rights. Massachusetts affords children the right to an attorney from birth. And spending a little more for a lawyer up front saves money on the backstretch. Same with supporting teens as they transition out of foster care. How many times did you move back home with mom and dad?
The transportation, ah, mess
Folks in Olympia seem to grasp the need for better transportation. The Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus took a listening tour last year — and got an earful about all the needs all over the state. The Democratic House actually passed a transportation improvements package. And the governor is calling this the year of transportation.
In short, everybody's talking about how they want to do something. Our advice: Actions speak louder than words.
Why you should care? Well, let's see. Ragged highways, aging ferries, crumbling bridges, tunnels not in progress, inadequate transit, potholes. Enough said.
On these and other pressing state issues, there's a lot of good the Legislature can do this year. With any luck, leaders will galvanize the members of their respective caucuses and make 2014 a productive session — and one that ends on time, in mid-March.
Then we can all turn our attention elsewhere, until they start running for re-election this fall.
For complete coverage of the 2014 session, bookmark this Under the Dome page.
Photos courtesy of ingridtaylar/Flickr (kayaker), Thomas Favre-Bulle (desks) Angelo González/Flickr (doorway kid) and John Stang (collapsed Skagit River Bridge).