OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington’s Legislature began its latest session Monday much the way the last one ended — with little agreement on how to proceed on several policy issues.
In a rare opening day vote, House lawmakers approved by a 71-23 margin a bill that would expand state financial aid to students who are living in the country illegally. It was swiftly swatted down by leaders in the Senate, however, who also didn’t give the bill a vote a year ago.
Without a major budget shortfall to deal with this year, lawmakers are pushing a variety of policy bills for the 60-day session, but the wide philosophical chasm between the House and Senate means many of those proposals have uncertain fate.
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the Democratic leader of the predominantly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, said that while he thinks the financial aid measure is an “important bill,” his caucus is focused on other issues.
“What we’re focused on in the Senate is moving this economy forward, and those are the issues that we’re going to really focus on this session — jobs, education, making sure we have a sustainable budget,” he said. Last year, the Senate approved a measure that would make changes to the state workers’ compensation system, and that didn’t get a hearing in the House.
House Speaker Frank Chopp called on his colleagues to take action. He dedicated much of his opening message to the financial aid proposal, saying the state constitution calls on lawmakers to provide an education to all students who reside in the state.
“It is fundamental to our state and nation,” Chopp said.
Democrats in the House also began immediate committee consideration of a bill that would require Washington insurers to cover abortions in addition to the maternity care they’re already mandated to provide. That’s another bill the Senate declined to consider last year.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma Democrat who sits on the Health Care and Wellness Committee that heard the bill Monday, said she hoped that Senate leaders would simply allow a vote and see whether the proposal passes or fails.
Jinkins said it’s outrageous that some believe that insurance companies should decide the sorts of health care that people should have.
“It’s very difficult for me to hear people testify that’s what’s fair,” Jinkins said.
Tom said Monday that while he personally supports the measure, there are other issues that will likely take precedence during the 60-day session.
“To me to sit here and say the most important bill that we’re going to pass this year is a bill that no other state has passed. … I think we need to get back to kitchen table issues,” he said. “What I’m hearing from my constituents is what can we do to move this economy forward? Focus on the big issues, don’t focus on those issues that are politically divisive.”
This is the third year that Democratic state lawmakers have pushed the abortion coverage proposal. Opponents have long argued that it’s unnecessary since all the plans in the state had, until this year, been providing abortion coverage. Advocates have pointed to confusion from new rules that create more administrative burdens for insurers when they cover abortions.
A longstanding federal provision known as the Hyde amendment prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. Insurers on the new health care exchanges, a centerpiece of the federal Affordable Care Act, have to create separate accounts that segregate premium payments for abortion services from premiums for everything else.
Other legislative issues expected to re-emerge despite a lack of progress in 2013 include a proposal to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation projects.
Some lawmakers also want to continue talks on how to grow spending for the state education system, whether to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana laws to bring it in line with the new legal recreational system, and whether to take action on competing gun initiatives that would otherwise appear on the ballot for voters to consider.
House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen gave a message of unity in his first floor speech of the session, saying both sides are concerned about education and the vulnerable. He said while there are going to be differences, he expects lawmakers to work together and finish the job on time — unlike last year.
“We will debate the issues,” Kristiansen said. “We will do it in a respectful fashion.”
In the Senate, Tom said he would leave issues like the Dream Act to his committee chairmen – in this case Republican Sen. Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor on the Higher Education Committee.
But Bailey, who blocked the bill last year, said she is not going to bring it up for another hearing or a vote this year.
“I think we have a lot of things that take priority over this,” Bailey told reporters. She said she favors a bill that would grant in-state tuition to military veterans who have moved to the state and not been here long enough to qualify for the lower rate for residents.
Staff writer Brad Shannon contributed to this report.