Gov. Jay Inslee will get the 2016 session of the Legislature into high gear with his State of the State speech today.
He is already urging action on addressing a teacher shortage, preparing for wildfires, closing tax loopholes and, above all, passing a supplemental budget. The budget action is the minimum expectation: The state constitution sets up the short (60-day) sessions in even-numbered years to adjust the spending plans laid out by the governor and the Legislature the year before.
In this case, the lawmakers and his governorship are coming off a rather harrowing budget experience last year: They were right up against a June 30 deadline, when shutdown of some government services would have had to begin. Republicans and Democrats alike say the final budget actually turned out well, so, whew. But a lot of people would like them to show that, hey, despite the split control in Olympia (a Republican Senate and a Democratic House and governor) that collaboration is going so well that they can finish their work on time (March 10).
Lawmakers will hear from all sorts of interested parties (everyday if not more often) on what else they would like. So here are some general suggestions from an independent point of view:
Give us a clear plan on education, finally. There are lots of concerns that remain: teacher pay, charter schools, and, hello, the court! Lawmakers working on a bipartisan panel convened by Gov. Inslee say they have a path forward to meeting the state Supreme Court's McCleary mandates for improving public schools. No, they don't think they will have the final answers, but they want to adopt a plan for addressing the court's concerns, including permanent financing and teacher compensation, next year. The issue is complicated by the tangle of levy money raised in local district. With pay differences running tens of thousands of dollars based on what district a teacher works in, there are a lot of important questions about both costs of living and equity. (Experienced teachers in Everett can earn $94,000, a figure lawmakers say is dramatically higher than in many districts.) That may be tough to resolve this year, but the more progress, the better.
Make a legislative decision on the minimum wage. A new initiative petition calls for a statewide minimum wage of $13.50 per hour, compared with the current figure of $9.47. Labor advocates would really rather have the Legislature set the bar. With a presidential election year likely to draw a very liberal electorate, some businesses may like lawmakers to engage in some compromise. If nothing else, a serious discussion – or a full alternative plan – would give all of us voters something to think about if the measure makes it to the ballot. And we know there's enough interest among labor and liberal groups to gather the necessary signatures pretty easily if they decide they need to. So even if the Legislature decides to duck, this ain't going away.
Address the economic challenges outside the Puget Sound area. Republicans have proposed looking at how the costs of worker's compensation are hurting the Spokane area (businesses in Idaho have much lower costs). Are there any creative ways to help in border areas without weakening workers' protections overall? Bigger picture: Could the Legislature and the governor begin to seriously study how the rest of the state could begin to enjoy some of the prosperity? Cities may have all the advantages in the new economy, but there have to be some clever ideas out there that could spread the wealth. Inslee has spent part of his career in Eastern Washington. Shouldn't he and legislators from outside the main urban areas pull together on this?
Be real about climate change. If nothing else, legislators can show that they've heard Gov. Inslee's plea to put more resources into preparing for wildfires. There's plenty of room for disagreement on the specifics of how to address carbon emissions, but it would be nice to see the state facing reality — especially the reality of wildfires, which have devastated rural communities two years running now. That may be all we can expect this year, but it would be something.
Homelessness: Help us understand what's happening. Democrats are urging the Legislature to devote large chunks of the state's Rainy Day fund to helping out with what Seattle has already declared an emergency. Well, there are tents everywhere in much of the Seattle area. That doesn't mean that politically or even legally this is what the Rainy Day fund should be spent on. And Republicans make the sensible point that it doesn't necessarily mean it's smart to spend the Rainy Day fund on a problem, no matter how serious, that's occurring in the middle of good economic times. But whether or not more money is put into additional services, at least the public could gain from better information about what's creating such levels of homelessness. Where do they all come from? What could be done smarter to bring people into real shelter? Legislators from all over the state should care about that.
And about finishing on time: It would demonstrate — if to no one but legislators themselves — that they are learning to work together in a divided government. Just like they all have been saying. The bigger test, of course, is how well they do their jobs, even if it takes a little extra time.