Legislature 2014: Ready to rumble. Again.

Democrats and Republicans appear ready to engage anew in the standoffs that led to gridlock last year.
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Sen. Rodney Tom (left) leads the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and Sen. Mark Schoesler leads the Republicans, who form most of the coalition membership.

Democrats and Republicans appear ready to engage anew in the standoffs that led to gridlock last year.

Will the new legislative session become "Ultimate Deadlock II: The Sequel?" Or will legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee deliberately punt dicey issues on to 2015?

And will a Legislature that has radically different ideas on how to fix the state education system be able to meet a Washington Supreme Court mandate? Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature is doing a lousy job of complying with its 2012 ruling to deal with the situation, and gave the deeply divided Legislature until April 30 to come up with a new fix-it plan. 

Last year, Olympia showed itself to be borderline dysfunctional with a heavy dose of passive-aggressive behavior. Both Republicans and Democrats appeared more interested in killing each other's bills than in compromising.

Republican-controlled Senate bills on education reform and workers compensation reforms died immediately in the Democratic-controlled House. House bills on college financial aid to high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants and on abortion insurance coverage were left to die in the Senate. Democrats and Republicans deadlocked 57 days beyond the end of the regular 2013 session, reaching an agreement three days prior to a partial government shutdown that would have embarrassed both sides.

There is a good chance that it will take more than a year for the two sides to agree on how build and fix highways and bridges in Washington — something that has been a bipartisan slam dunk in the past. Likewise, Inslee's push to tackle carbon emissions appears to be on hold until 2015.

So today's start of a 60-day session does not look promising. Here's a rundown of some of the big questions.

Will the Legislature get its act together on education?

In 2012, Washington's Supreme Court ruled — the so-called "McCleary decision" — that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligations on basic education, especially on student-teacher ratios, class hours in school and graduation credits. The state calculated that it needs $4 billion to $4.5 billion in extra appropriations from 2013 to 2018 to meet the Supreme Court's ruling.

Republicans have low-balled the costs of complying with McCleary, suggesting that reforms in how schools are run will lead to compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. Democrats have argued for more tax revenue — from somewhere — in order to pay for the required improvements. The two sides finally settled on allocating an extra $982 million for 2013-2015, meaning that full McCleary compliance would require much larger increases in each of the next two budgets, for 2015-17 and 2017-2019.

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court told the Legislature that it is spending too little money to meet its constitutional obligations; it gave the Legislature until April 30 to submit a catch-up plan. At a Friday Seattle City Club forum, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said the Legislature needs to raise more money to meet its McCleary obligations. "The McCleary ruling was all about education funding," Sullivan said.

But at the same forum, Senate Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said the McCleary ruling was not necessarily about funding, but about reforms to fix the education system. And they contended that Legislature should meet all of the McCleary obligations first before mapping out budgets for other state programs such as social services. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, objects, saying Republicans would likely be unwilling to increase taxes to preserve social services.

Bottom line: Neither side has budged from its 2013 stance.

Will Inslee ever gain traction on climate change legislation?

The answer is likely "no" for 2014. Last Thursday, Inslee conceded that the Republican Senate and Democratic House probably wouldn't agree this year on how to tackle carbon emissions, which are linked to global warming and the ocean acidification harming Washington's shellfish industry.

"We already have one of the cleanest states in the world," said Senate Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Inslee and the Democrats want to install carbon emissions caps and a cap-and-trade system. Republicans want to look at nuclear power and at loosening the carbon emission targets that the Legislature set in 2008.

Both sides share the blame, having taken passive-aggressive approaches on this issue. Last year, the Republican Senate insisted on having only four voting members — two from each party — on a five-person panel to recommend climate change legislation. Then each side avoided any serious attempts to reach a consensus.

Inslee is now looking at creating some type of requirement for low-carbon vehicle fuel standards in Washington, possibly through an administrative rule. Republicans oppose the idea and his own Democrats are worried it might increase vehicle fuel costs on top of a possible gas tax hike.

Will a transportation package ever get passed?

Hints have emerged that this long-awaited package might stall again.

Passage by the Republican-dominated Senate will take some Democratic votes, because some Republicans will oppose any gas-tax hike, according to the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus' lead negotiator, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. In fact, it's possible the coalition's conservatives would use their power in the caucus to block a floor vote in the Senate.

Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating for up to 12 months on a package of transportation projects, how to raise money to pay for those projects and changes in transportation-related laws. Last May, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $10 billion proposal, financed in part by a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike in the current state tax of 37.5 cents a gallon. The Republican-dominated Senate majority coalition current proposal of a gas tax hike of 11.5 cents a gallon was informally unveiled in November.

Besides the gas tax issue, Republicans and Democrats are still split on several related issues. The majority coalition' wants to exempt transportation materials from the sales tax and shift the funding of stormwater-runoff projects to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax. Urban Democrats want more money for mass transit.

Another complication is that the state has big, highly publicized problems with replacing the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington and with the downtown Seattle tunnel-boring machine. "When my constituents look at those, they ask: 'What are you doing? ... And how can you ask for an additional 11.5 cents a gallon?' " said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

Will dead bills rise from the grave?

The Republican expect to revive their workers compensation reform efforts that passed the Senate. And Republicans want to look at trimming pensions  and at shifting to 401(k) plans for state employees. Meanwhile, House Democrats want to revive the Reproductive Parity Act and a bill to allow high schools graduates who are children of undocumented immigrants to apply for college aid. Last year, both sides held the other party's bills hostage in attempts to use them as bargaining chips.

Will a supplemental budget pass?

One major reason for a 60-day short session is to pass a supplemental budget to fix any funding problems under the budget approved the year before. For the first time in years, the biennial budget — adopted last year — has no shortfalls to tackle.

Inslee has proposed adding roughly $205 million to the $33.7 billion 2013-2015 biennial budget passed last June. About $150 million is to cover unexpected increases in student numbers and state caseloads, plus other unpredicted expenses in already budgeted programs. Another roughly $55 million would start many scattered new programs.

Meanwhile, Republicans have given mixed signals of going along Inslee or just foregoing any changes to the 2013-2015 budget, believing alterations are unnecessary. "We could operate without the supplemental budget," Schoesler said.

Once again, then, deadlock could begin with the budget.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8