Back in the days of the Washington Territorial Legislature, a newspaper editor wondered what kind of “hell broth” would be cooked up in Olympia. Yes, expectations have long been low when our electeds gather for legislative sessions. Much of the hell broth the Legislature has boiled in recent years has been less hellish and more Purgatorial: a major transportation plan not passed, basic education not funded, tax reform in limbo. Just six percent of the public has a “very favorable” opinion of the Legislature, according to a KCTS poll last fall. In Eastern Washington, the “very favorable” number was less than one percent.
Still, hope springs eternal that something palatable — dare we hope, even profound — will emerge from the dysfunctional politics. Will 2015 be the year?
Certainly, the challenges and pressures for solutions and answers have not lessened, and the stakes are high. We’ll have divided government again, with Democrats in control of the House and governor’s office, and Republicans in the driver’s seat in the state Senate. With new leadership and Gov. Jay Inslee laying out an ambitious agenda, one big question will be can lawmakers find room for compromise? Can they find the votes to go big on reforms, cuts, and/or new revenues?
Crosscut will be giving unprecedented focus to the Legislature this year, engineering coverage and commentary with a wide variety of reporters and analysts. We’ve even recruited some budding anthropologists to help us understand the ways of Olympia’s lawmakers, truly a culture within a culture. In terms of issues, we’ll focus on a few, key problems and how they’ll be addressed.
Here’s what’s on our radar screen as the 2015 legislative session begins:
1. What do You Do With A Problem Like McCleary?
For the first time in history, the state Supreme Court has held the state Legislature in contempt for failure to obey a court order, the so-called McClearly decision that insists the state fulfill its paramount constitutional responsibility to fully fund a basic K-12 education for Washington youth.
The public agrees that education is of primary importance. A recent Elway poll found that 42 percent said education is their No. 1 priority, ranking even above the economy. A 2014 KCTS poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed wanted the Legislature to provide more funding for education. If you added those who “somewhat agreed” with that, the number rose to a whopping 77 percent.
The question is, how to accomplish what the court requires? Democrats argue that it will mean more funding as the state will have to pick up the tab for school spending currently being paid for by local districts and to expand programs, like all-day kindergarten. On top of that, the public weighed-in at the voting booth last fall and expressed (yet again) a preference for smaller class sizes, yet with no means to fund them.
Republicans insist that McCleary’s mandates can be met by reforming the education system and moving more state resources to education spending without raising taxes. The cost of smaller class sizes and McCleary funding have been jointly estimated at adding more than $8 billion in spending over the next two biennia (2015-2019), money the state does not have lying around in the seat cushions.
The Supreme Court is holding the contempt finding over the Legislature’s head to force progress; some in the Legislative branch have bristled about an activist court and suggest a constitutional crisis could result. The confluence of public priority, state responsibility, funding challenges, constitutional law, and education reform make McCleary a centerpiece challenge and litmus test for the state’s ability to fulfill its most fundamental duty.
2. How’s the Climate for Climate Change?
As one might expect, Gov. Inslee is providing green leadership in Washington this year — this was the territory he staked out in Congress. He was Al Gore before Al Gore was Al Gore. The governor sees his climate proposals for the Legislature as integrated with other issues, such as education funding and a new state transportation plan.
His attack on climate change is multi-modal: it includes a fee charged to the state’s largest carbon polluters (the “Carbon Pollution Accountability Act”), sales tax breaks for those buying energy-efficient vehicles (electric, hybrids, etc.), a statewide “sustainable transportation” plan, $60 million for a clean energy fund to underwrite research and demonstration projects in renewable energy and energy efficiency, new state clean fuel standards and a reduction in reliance on coal-based energy. The list goes on.
The question is whether the Legislature will be amenable to any of it. The polluter’s tax could generate as much as $1 billion per year while also working to limit carbon emissions by reducing them systematically even while taxing them. While tax hikes aren’t popular, especially with GOP legislators who are predicted to oppose Inslee’s plan, the public substantially favors the concept of a carbon tax on polluters, according to a recent Elway Poll, with 71 percent supporting it. On the other hand, the poll found that only six percent listed the environment as their number one issue, meaning Inslee’s strategy to link his carbon-reducing plans to more popular problem-solving, like cutting congestion and paying for education, is probably a smart approach. It’s not about global warming, it's about the kids.
Still, it opens Inslee to the charge that he’s trying to save the planet while ignoring more immediate problems. Whether Inslee’s green policy machine flies in the Legislature is another matter entirely. Will opponents make it seem like Inslee is out of touch? One test for success will be whether swing-district or suburban Republican legislators can find their way on board, or whether proposals merely die in committee to become campaign fodder for the elections in 2016.
3. Ending the Gridlock to Help Gridlock
Much of the last Legislature’s failure to pass a state transportation bill rested on the shoulders of then-leader of the so-called Majority Coalition, Medina Democrat Rodney Tom (no longer in Olympia). Despite laying out a transportation plan as a major priority, Tom declined to work with Democrats at the end of the 2014 session on a plan they proposed. Others say the failure was bipartisan, but it became emblematic of lawmakers inability to agree on even the most basic of things — roads, bridges and capital projects (and jobs) in every part of the state.
There is general consensus on many aspects of what needs to be done, but problems like the troubled deep-bore Bertha and the 520 pontoon debacle have shaken some people’s faith in the Washington Department of Transportation, and some are eager to see the outcome of the shake-up at the ferry system. Other barriers to getting an agreement in recent years have included arguments over building the new Columbia River Crossing bridge (we killed it), and greens have long been unhappy at a lack of state transit funding and the highway-centric nature of past and future state plans. In addition, many Republicans have said they would not countenance a tax increase of any kind to pay for it. Inslee’s carbon polluter fee is one creative way around relying on boosting the unpopular gas tax, but still the one thing worse than actual traffic gridlock has been the legislative gridlock over a state transportation plan. Will it move in 2015?
4. Tip-toeing into Tax Reform?
Tax reform comes in many forms. Democrats have long wanted to see a more progressive tax system in the state, yet an income tax still remains a political third rail. Gov. Inslee has been looking for ways of raising new revenues, including instituting a capital gains tax (on selected stock and bond sales over $25,000 for individuals) — 57 percent approved of that idea in an Elway Poll. He’s broken a campaign pledge not to raise taxes, and told Washingtonians to “buck up” when it comes to raising revenues to cover a projected budget deficit and to make investments in the state.
Still, Inslee’s focus is targeted: he wants higher cigarette taxes, for example, as well as fees imposed on polluters. His proposed biennium budget is $39 billion, and he needs to make up a budget gap of $2.35 billion to make it work. Republicans see the governor’s plan as way too liberal on taxes. State Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond told the Seattle Times that “Tax increases should be the last resort, not the first response.” But the governor has learned in the last two years that the state’s economic growth alone will not enable the progressive agenda he favors. Any revenue boosts, even if they made it into law, will surely find Tim Eyman opposition at the ballot box — what people tell pollsters is one thing, but voters sometimes say something else.
One wonders too if the Legislature can make any progress on closing tax breaks for various industries, reforming the B&O tax to make it fairer to small (namely non-Boeing) businesses, and gaining more flexibility for local jurisdictions to raise voter-approved taxes, a high priority for tax-friendly urban entities like Seattle and King County. Coming up with a fairer tax system overall and reducing reliance on the regressive sales tax is a long-term project. Coming up with more revenues along with reforms that will survive public opinion and political scrutiny is an even bigger one.
Those are our Olympia-watch priorities for 2015, a political season that’s destined to produce a broth that will have a major impact for what it does, and doesn’t, accomplish. We can at least hope to move to a broth that is more nourishing than in years past.