OLYMPIA — As state lawmakers stream into Washington Capitol building from points near and far, Democrats boast their strongest majorities since 2010.
Many of those legislators are walking into the 2019 legislative session fired up over what they see as President Donald Trump’s adversarial presidency and eager to mold Washington into the more progressive version they have talked about for years.
Many state Democrats in recent years have proposed or campaigned on implementing a capital-gains tax, passing aggressive policies to fight climate change, expanding health-care and education programs and spending more on social programs.
Despite their proposals, pleas and the promises, several years of divided government — a Republican coalition held the Senate between 2013 and 2017 — and last year’s razor-thin Democratic majorities forced Democrats to set aside many ambitious proposals.
But November’s elections shifted the scales in Olympia. Democrats picked up 10 seats in the Legislature, giving them a 28-21 majority in the Senate and a 57-41 edge in the House.
“Now the troops have arrived,” Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday in an interview. The governor has for years seen many of his signature priorities on climate change wither away in Olympia due to opposition or disinterest.
The governor already has laid out an ambitious $54.4 billion 2019-21 state operating budget proposal. It includes Democratic priorities to fight climate change and save killer whales, fund state-worker raises and expand education spending.
It also includes a plan to reshape Washington’s deeply-troubled mental-health system and improve K-12 special-education funding, two areas that Democrats and Republicans broadly agree must be a priority. Lawmakers in both parties are also talking about efforts to address the crises in homelessness and housing affordability, both of which have spread far beyond Seattle.
To fund his priorities, the governor proposed a tax package of more than $3.7 billion for the two-year cycle, which drew swift condemnation from the GOP and consternation from some Democrats.
Inslee’s State of the State address is scheduled for Tuesday.
Republicans come to Olympia this year alarmed about the scope of proposed spending and taxes — and about the big Democratic majorities.
“In a one-party state, there is a tendency to crush dissent,” said Republican House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm.
“There’s no effective government and agency oversight, because one party doesn’t investigate itself,” he added. “You hear a lot of complaints about that at the national level, and we have that issue here, to some extent.”
As lawmakers tackle these issues in the 105-day session that begins Monday, they have a governor actively exploring a 2020 presidential bid. Inslee has started a political action committee to fund those efforts. He traveled to Nevada on Saturday and is scheduled to fly to New Hampshire later this month. Both are early key states for candidates.
Though it’s natural for politicians to be running for higher office, Wilcox said he hoped the governor would do his best to focus on Olympia as “his first job.”
“I also think it does make it more difficult to really concentrate on good government when you’ve got a lot people looking for the next position,” Wilcox said.
The governor pointed to his proposals on early-childhood education, and environmental issues including climate change — longtime priorities of his — as reason for him to stay engaged in Olympia.
“These are things that I am intensely, personally committed to,” Inslee said. “So you can be assured I am going to do what’s necessary to do everything possible to get them across the finish line.”
Here’s a look at a few of the big issues lawmakers are facing:
Lawmakers and Inslee in recent years have poured roughly $900 million into the state’s mental-health system in response to court orders and federal inspections highlighting the shortage of psychiatric beds and qualified workers, as well as unsafe conditions for staff and unlawful treatment of patients.
The money and attention couldn’t stop the decertification of Western State Hospital, Washington’s largest psychiatric facility, which has for years struggled with severe safety and staffing issues. That cost the state $53 million in annual federal funding, and state officials say getting the hospital recertified by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid would be too expensive to justify for its aging campus of buildings in Lakewood.
“Right now, we’ve got a two-pronged problem, we don’t have beds, and we don’t have people to work” in mental health facilities,” said state Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax. “So we’re going to have to build both as we move ahead. And I agree the Legislature probably hasn’t done a good job. That’s why we need a plan moving ahead.”
Inslee has proposed a $675 million blueprint to add hundreds of new mental-health and supportive housing beds, partnering with the University of Washington to build a teaching hospital focused on behavioral health, and proposals to train and attract more workers. The governor has also proposed building several state-run hospitals, as well as a replacement for Western State Hospital.
Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on the size of all the facilities or whether they should be run and owned by the state or privately staffed and operated.
But lawmakers in both parties have said they agreed with the need to build a replacement facility for Western State Hospital.
Last June, the state Supreme Court ended its oversight of the multiyear, high-stakes K-12 school-funding order that stemmed from its 2012 McCleary decision.
Funding that court order — which ruled that the state had violated its constitution by underfunding basic education costs — has for years dominated the agenda in Olympia.
Even with the court’s oversight ended, legislators in both parties say they have to do more to fund K-12 special-education programs.
The governor and Democratic lawmakers also want to spend more money to expand early childhood education.
Compared to recent investments in K-12 education and college affordability, “We haven’t done as much as the third leg in the stool, on early learning,” said Senate Democratic Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane. “Which is actually probably the place where you get the biggest bang for your buck.”
The days of Inslee’s bold, overarching carbon-reduction plans are done for now.
State voters rejected carbon-fee initiatives in 2016 and 2018, and the governor’s cap-and-trade and carbon-fee proposals failed in recent years to advance through the Legislature.
Now, the governor has proposed $268 million package to fight climate change. That is spread across several smaller proposals that he says will add up to “a clean-energy smart deal” that would cut greenhouse-gas emissions 25 percent below their 1990 levels by 2035.
The proposals include a clean-fuels standard targeting auto emissions, the gradual elimination of “super-pollutant” hydrofluorocarbons that are used in air-conditioning, more electric-vehicle incentives and stricter energy-efficiency regulations for buildings.
Inslee has also proposed a plan to save the southern resident population of killer whales, and Democratic lawmakers have also discussed the idea of more oil-transportation safety legislation.
Republicans have been broadly skeptical of more environmental regulations, arguing they could hurt the state’s economy.
For a different approach, Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis said he is preparing legislation similar to a bill he sponsored last year that focuses on incentives to encourage utilities to phase out fossil fuels.
Taxes and spending
A booming economy has brought Washington big windfalls in projected revenue from existing taxes.
Lawmakers in the summer of 2017 approved a $43.7 billion two-year operating budget, and added to that in a supplement budget last year.
Even without any new taxes, the state will have roughly $50 billion to spend over the upcoming two-year budget cycle.
To pay for his ambitious budget proposal, Inslee has proposed a 9 percent tax on some capital-gains earnings. The governor is also pushing for a hike in part of the business-and-occupation tax, as well as a restructuring of the real estate excise tax.
But a handful of Democratic senators are already opposed to that package, making it very unlikely for that package to pass the Senate.
Lawmakers will need some new revenue to fund existing programs and new priorities, according to Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
But Rolfes, the Senate’s chief Democratic budget writer, said her party doesn’t have the votes — or necessarily the agreement — to “unilaterally do a lot of radical things.”
For new revenue, Rolfes said eliminating some tax preferences or a version of the governor’s real estate excise tax plan, could work. She also said a smaller version of the governor’s proposed business-and-occupation tax might gain traction. That plan would raise the rate for some services, including accountants, architects, attorneys, janitorial services, massage therapists and beauticians.
In addition to opposing most big tax proposals, Republicans have also expressed concern at the increase in government spending in recent years.
The state has gone for many years without an economic downturn. Wilcox, the GOP House minority leader, said the state could get into a situation like it did when the Great Recession hammered Washington’s tax collections.
In response, lawmakers then had to cut deeply into the budget — decisions that officials to this day say caused ongoing problems in Washington’s mental-health and social-service systems.
Said Wilcox: “The people that are most in need of help get hurt the most when you lose control of budget growth.”
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