Legislature moving at glacial pace

Republican-led coalition in Senate, Democratic House pass milestone today

bshannon@theolympian.comFebruary 17, 2013 

The Legislature hits the one-third mark of its contentious session today with little to show for its work. No bills have been sent to new Gov. Jay Inslee, and the year’s major battles over school funding, taxes, gun control, Medicaid expansion and abortion are still out on the horizon.

But there is no doubt a Republican-dominated coalition in the Senate is pushing a business-friendly and socially conservative agenda that’s at odds with the Democrat-run House.

As the session wears on, some of the Senate’s proposals are likely to become bargaining chips with the more labor-friendly and socially liberal House – everything from proposals to re-reform the state workers’ compensation program to contracting out state services, from adding accountability rules for public schools to scrapping the state’s unfunded program for paid family leave.

“We’re far apart rather than on a collision course,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said last week in an interview. “I’m not saying that won’t happen or we won’t get there. But I think it’s premature to say we are on a collision course at this point,’’

In the Senate, the leader of a Republican-dominated coalition that holds a one-vote majority says his diverse coalition has a different view than the House majority on how to address the state’s business competitiveness.

“We’re not setting this thing up to have a big debate with the House,” said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, one of two Democrats in the coalition.

Instead, Tom says his team is just giving an overdue voice to dormant ideas at the Capitol.

“I think we need to make sure that we are listening to businesses and let’s look at the big things that shift their cost structures,’’ Tom said. “In the Senate we’ve been able to hear things that have been bottled up in this town for quite some time.”

Taxes to help pay for K-12 public schools and higher gasoline taxes for a major transportation investment are just two points of contention that have yet to fully shape up.

Sullivan and fellow House Democrats say they cannot see how a budget can be balanced to meet Supreme Court requirements for public school funding unless new revenue is raised. Meanwhile, Tom and his coalition have taken pot shots at tax ideas offered by Senate Democrats.

Another flash point could come this week as House Democrats are poised to roll out a transportation-tax plan that could cost $6 billion over 10 years. Some Republicans and Tom are hearing from business interests that want less congestion on the roadways and better freight mobility, but a fight could emerge over transit and rail programs and how to pay for such investments.

Other areas of disagreement that could turn into trading cards between the chambers:

 • How far to expand the federally subsidized Medicaid program.

 • Whether to guarantee abortion coverage for women who buy health insurance policies through a state-run insurance exchange.

 • Whether to tinker yet again with workers’ compensation rules that let few disabled employees get cash payouts in lieu of lifetime pensions.

 • Whether to levy a payroll tax to fund paid family leave or scrap the state program, unfunded since it was created in 2007.

 • How many government services to privatize.

On some issues, such as abortion, the landscape seems to shift frequently.

Tom and Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville both were promising to give a hearing to the Reproductive Rights Act, a controversial bill sponsored by a moderate Democrat, Sen. Steve Hobbs, and a moderate Republican, Sen. Steve Litzow. It would require insurers to cover abortion if they also cover maternity care.

But on Friday, Schoesler said he doubted his caucus would hold floor votes on either the abortion coverage bill or on mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.

Tom does appear to be backing off his quest to halt new enrollments in the state-run Guaranteed Education Tuition program, which is under financial strain as a result of double-digit tuition hikes enacted by the Legislature over the past four years.

The House voted 95-1 Friday to pass a bill that addresses one aspect of the GET program: barring universities from enacting differential tuition rates for high-demand or expensive undergraduate degree programs such as engineering or computer science.

Sullivan says fears about the tuition program’s financial integrity are overblown and that it faces only a 0.6 percent chance of needing taxpayer subsidies from the state general fund.

In the Senate, minority Democrats are looking for ways to head off tuition increases and spare GET by infusing universities with $225 million in new funding. Budget cuts in recent years have shifted the majority of college costs onto students.

But Republicans have been chilly to any and all tax increases — including a concept offered by Democratic Leader Ed Murray of Seattle to tax capital gains for the wealthy in a bid to funnel money into K-12 and higher education.

Republicans in both chambers have espoused an education-first mantra that would earmark a portion of the state budget for K-12 schools in response to the state Supreme Court order to amply fund public schools with less reliance on local, voter-approved levies.

But as Sullivan likes to point out, Republican budget proposals in recent years have tended to put less money into schools than what Democrats demanded.

Stay tuned. There are 70 days left, assuming the session doesn’t drag into overtime.

FEWER BILLS GOING THROUGH

Lawmakers in both legislative chambers say action is moving a bit more slowly than usual this year. One reason is the new administration of Gov. Jay Inslee. Another is the large number of freshman lawmakers in each chamber.

One result is fewer bills have been introduced. The Legislative Information Center says overall bill traffic in 2013 is lower than the pace of the last 105-day session in 2011.

As of Thursday, 1,661 total bills had been introduced in the House and Senate – not counting memorials to Congress or joint resolutions.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politicsblog/ Twitter: @BradShannon2

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