OLYMPIA, Wash. — The 105-day legislative session in Washington state begins Monday, with lawmakers set to write a new two-year budget.
Unlike previous years, when satisfying a court mandate on education funding was their driving focus, lawmakers return to Olympia this year with a variety of costly issues on their plate.
While the latest forecast showed state revenues for the next two-year cycle increasing to $50 billion, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has said that additional revenue is needed to fund priority issues like mental health and other programs in addition to maintaining government services at current levels, including billions previously dedicated toward the state's education system.
A part of that ongoing cost is the investment the Legislature has made in basic education as part of a multi-year court case — known as the McCleary case — that was resolved last year.
As part of his budget plan unveiled last month, Inslee's revenue proposals included an increase in the business and occupation tax on services provided by accountants, attorneys, real estate agents and others and a new state capital gains tax, a proposal that is certain to face pushback from Republicans and even some Democrats.
Democrats increased their margins in both legislative chambers after the November election, and now hold a 28-21 majority in the Senate and a 57-41 edge in the House.
Leaders in the House and Senate will release their budget plans in the coming months and will work to negotiate a final budget before the session concludes at the end of April.
Here are some of the issues lawmakers will be grappling with this session:
Mental health funding
Inslee has proposed $675 million in spending over the next two years to address the state's behavioral health system, including expanding treatment options and additional housing support. The governor's plan includes funding for his previously announced plan to move people hospitalized on civil commitments out of the state's two psychiatric hospitals and into beds at facilities in the community. Western State Hospital — an 850-plus bed facility in Lakewood — has been plagued with problems and has lost its certification by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and federal funding after it repeatedly failed health and safety inspections.
Republican Sen. Steve O'Ban has said lawmakers must consider behavioral health policy and funding to be a "McCleary-level" legislative priority. Lawmakers in both chambers say there will be a bipartisan effort to address the problem.
While the state Supreme Court no longer holds jurisdiction over the state's funding of K-12 education, the ongoing costs from final compliance with that multiyear lawsuit continue with the future budget. Lawmakers and Inslee have said there's more work to be done on basic education. There have been bipartisan calls for addressing special education program funding. Inslee's budget proposal calls for a $146 million increase in spending on special education in the next two-year budget.
There will also be a push from some local school districts arguing that the current local tax caps that were part of the legislative plan on education are unsustainable and will lead to budget shortfalls in the districts.
Among the climate change measures Inslee has proposed is eliminating fossil fuels like natural gas and coal from the state's electricity supply by 2045. After voters rejected a carbon tax at the ballot in November, there doesn't appear to be any desire to take that up this year. Another major effort would implement a clean fuel standard — similar to a California program — by requiring fuel producers and importers to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transportation fuels. Inslee has included $268 million in his proposed two-year budget to pay for his clean energy initiatives. The efforts include boosting electric vehicle use, promoting more energy-efficient buildings and phasing out hydrofluorocarbon commonly used for refrigeration. Inslee also has called for increased funding for salmon recovery and water quality projects in part to help the state's struggling orca population. Democratic lawmakers in both chambers have already introduced bills on several proposals.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the House and Senate moved forward with work groups focused on addressing sexual harassment at the Capitol. Those groups have made a variety of recommendations, including the hiring of an independent human resources office where complaints can be lodged. In the past year, three lawmakers in the state have either lost re-election or announced their resignation following accusations ranging from rape to harassment. As lawmakers start a new legislative session, the Senate is awaiting the completion of an outside investigation into Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker following allegations of improper conduct, the first test of the chamber's new workplace policies adopted last summer.
Lawmakers have said they'll continue their work on the issue in the new session, including moving forward with a process to hire a nonpartisan human resources officer who can independently investigate complaints of harassment or discrimination.
A year after Washington lawmakers attempted to exempt themselves from the state's Public Records Act, a few have said they intend to address transparency at the Legislature this year. The debate over legislative records was sparked by last year's ruling by a Thurston County superior court judge, who found that that while the Washington Legislature, the House and Senate were not subject to the Public Records Act, the statute was clear that the offices of individual lawmakers were covered by the law. That ruling — in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of media groups led by The Associated Press and included KING 5 — has been appealed, and is currently awaiting arguments before the state Supreme Court. Inslee vetoed last year's exemption bill after a public outcry. A public records task force formed following the veto met four times last year, and agreed the Legislature should be more transparent.