Olympia is the Bermuda Triangle of legislation. Most major bills entered there — and disappeared.
Proposals for heavy lifting on the Washington Supreme Court's McCleary ruling vanished. New taxes, new tax breaks and new attempts to close tax exemptions all dropped off the radar screen. Efforts to jumpstart new transportation projects faded away. Climate change proposals evaporated. Oil transportation safety took a detour into the Twilight Zone. The Reproductive Parity Act had its annual collapse in the Senate.
In some political circles, the lack of progress is good because no new taxes were levied on Washingtonians. But a massive pile of problems will be inherited by the 2015 State Legislature, assuming that today's reluctance to compromise won't also extend to next year.
Aside from the routine bills, three pieces of major legislation did make it through. One was a bare-bones supplemental budget that tweaked the state's current (2013-15) $33.6 billion operating budget. The other two involved a change of heart by the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus on two originally Democratic proposals: One proposal allows high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants to qualify for state college aid; the other preserves a $40 fee on home sales until 2019, which helps the poor and homeless secure private and public housing. (This last minute conversion came after the Coalition took political heat for opposing both measures.)
Here is a breakdown of what did and did not get done in the 2014 legislative session:
Taxes and tax breaks
Both sides agreed to get nowhere on levying new taxes, creating new tax breaks and closing tax exemptions. Republicans and Democrats let all these proposals die with the understanding that all will be re-tackled in 2015. Each side is praying that the other will magically change its mind between now and May of next year.
The casualties of this do-nothing approach include several Republican proposals for new tax breaks worth $83 million in 2014-2015. Meanwhile, Democrats were eager to eliminate a tax break that mainly benefits five oil refineries; force out-of-state residents to pay Washington's sales tax; impose the sales tax on bottled water; and eliminate a B&O tax break for drug resellers. Eliminating those tax breaks would have raised a toal of $106 million in 2014-2015, and $203 million in 2015-2017. That extra revenue would have financed education improvements and cost-of-living increases for teachers. But Democrats withdrew those proposals as part of the final budget deal.
Another session casualty was the tax on electronic cigarettes proposed by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. Carlyle originally sought a tax rate of 95 percent on e-cigarettes, but dropped it down to 75 percent, and then to 50 percent before finally giving it up entirely. "There was very strong, fierce, overwhelming opposition from the Senate," said Carlyle, who plans to revive the proposal in 2015.
In its 2012 McCleary decision, the Washington Supreme Court found the state in violation of its Constitutional duty to provide a basic education for Washington's kids. The biggest thrust of the court’s decision is to improve teacher-student ratios in Grades K-3. That means hiring more teachers and building more classrooms. The number of high school hours was also supposed to increase to 1,080, and the number of credits needed for graduation to 24. The estimated cost of these changes, between 2013 and 2019, is $4-$4.5 billion.
All Democratic attempts to raise those extra billions — by closing tax breaks and creating an electronic cigarette tax — failed. As did Democratic efforts to restore teacher cost-of-living raises.
The Legislature did overwhelmingly approve the 1,080 annual hours and 24 credits requirements. It also added $58 million for McCleary preparatory work, which brings the total McCleary appropriations to $1.04 billion. That leaves $3-$3.5 billion to be found and allocated during the next four years, with no funding sources identified so far.
Senate Democrats failed — 23-26, along caucus lines — to get the full Senate to adopt the House's supplemental capital budget. The $166.5 million House proposal came with a plan to borrow $700 million, against future lottery revenue, to help build the extra classrooms needed to comply with McCleary’s mandate for lower teacher-student ratios. Democrats claimed that the supplementary budget would also fund 2,500 jobs. "This is the first time in my short career where we refused to invest in job creation," said Sen.Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo. The Senate’s Majority Coalition soured on the House proposal’s $82 million for a Washington State Patrol building to be constructed near the Capitol campus in Olympia. "Hotel California. Palace. Whatever you call it. We don't need it," said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
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