Can the Legislature get more done in overtime?

By Chris Vance
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By Chris Vance

I walked onto the State Capitol campus the other day, expecting to see the bee hive of activity normal during the final days of a legislative session. Normally, the House and Senate would be working long hours on the floor reconciling bills that have passed both houses. Conference rooms would be filled with negotiators working on the operating budget, the transportation budget and a few other big bills.

Instead, the Capitol was quiet, and I joined a gaggle of lobbyists sharing rumors about when the legislature would give up and go home and how long the break would be before the start of the special session.

Gov. Jay Inslee soon decided that the Legislature would come back this coming Wednesday, a few days after the end of the regular session.

Nothing about the 2015 Legislature was “normal” during the regular session. And the biggest question facing state government remains unanswered: Can Republicans and Democrats work together to solve major issues?

They have, at least recently, looked at more big ideas than might have been expected. But the results? We’re headed to a special session because little has happened.

Normally, the Legislature has only one job that it is absolutely required to perform: pass an operating budget -- or state government shuts down. But this year there are two other issues that seemingly must be addressed.

The Legislature is under tremendous pressure to pass a big transportation package funded by a big gas tax increase. And the lawmakers are under a Supreme Court order in the McCleary case to adopt a plan showing how they will fully fund K-12 school without the use of local levies by 2018. This McCleary mandate has changed everything in Olympia.

Back in January, it wasn’t clear that that would be the case. Gov. Inslee virtually ignored the McCleary case in his proposed budget and State of the State address. The governor seemed to want to make this session about climate change and carbon. He proposed a bold cap-and-trade plan to tax “polluters” and use the money to fund transportation and education, but he did not propose a plan to limit levies and fully fund education. He still hasn’t.

At the beginning of the session, there was speculation about how seriously the Legislature took the court’s order. Would either party in either house attempt to put together a plan to restructure and fully fund K-12, or would they defy the court and simply fund the items they had already agreed to – all day kindergarten, transportation, materials and supplies, and smaller class sizes in the early grades – as the governor proposed?

In early March, the Republican Senate dramatically passed the transportation package, demonstrating that there are Republican votes for a gas tax increase. Later that month, the House and Senate both passed their versions of the operating budget. The Senate Republican budget included an aggressive plan to actually cut college tuitions. But neither budget came close to satisfying the requirements in McCleary to stop the use of levies for basic education.

The week of April 13, the dam seemed to break. On Tuesday of that week, State Superintendent Randy Dorn held a press conference laying out a detailed plan on how to achieve full funding of basic education. The next day, the Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, and the House Democrats all released their McCleary plans.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate both propose to reduce levies and prevent their use for basic education. The Republicans are proposing a levy swap -- reducing local levies while raising the state property tax for education. The Senate Democrats propose using a new capital gains tax for schools. Neither proposal is a complete McCleary plan, but both are major steps toward full funding. The House Democrats, on the other hand, have proposed creating a committee to further study the issue and report back the Legislature.

So, there is now a whole host of big, bold new ideas that have been proposed in Olympia: cap and trade, higher-ed tuition cuts, the levy swap, massive changes in K-12 governance, a new capital gains tax and a $15 billion package of highway and transit improvements. The problem is, so far, Republicans and Democrats haven’t agreed to pass any of it.

Senate Republicans have not put their McCleary plan on the floor for a vote. Are there really 25 votes in the Senate for a levy swap? Likewise, House Democrats have not put the capital gains tax on the House floor for a vote. Even if those ideas can pass one house, Republicans seem dug in against the capital gains tax, while the governor and the House Democrats are vehement in their opposition to the levy swap.

On transportation, the two sides are close in terms of the amount of new taxes needed, and the projects to be funded, but far apart on certain policy issues involving labor and the environment. And the GOP wants to change how transportation projects are taxed. These are the same issues that have prevented an agreement the past three years.

And the governor? While the rest of Olympia is focused on education and transportation, he wants the special session to focus on the environment and carbon, despite the fact he couldn’t get his own Democratic Party to put the cap and trade idea up for a vote in the House.

Olympia heads into the special session still gridlocked. The House and Senate, to their credit, have passed dozens of bills this session, many of which are very valuable and beneficial.

But since the Republicans took control of the Senate the two parties have been unable to reach agreement on the really big issues. With the major challenges – and court orders – facing the state, how long can that continue?

There would seem to be two paths this special session could take. On the one hand, the Legislature could reach historic agreements on transportation and education. On the other, lawmakers could remain stuck in neutral, simply pass a budget that keeps state government open but doesn’t solve any major problems, give up on a transportation compromise, and pass the House D proposal to further study the McCleary issues.

If that happens, we will all wait to see how the state Supreme Court reacts.

In announcing the special session, the governor said, “It is time for all sides to compromise, and on Monday I hope to hear openness to that and acknowledgment that the House and Senate will have to move toward each other in order to get the people’s work done.”

Yes, it is time for negotiation and compromise. But compromise means giving the other side at least part of what they want. Can our state’s leaders do that?

It hasn’t happened yet.

This story was originally published on April 26.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.