Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."
As Special Session Looms, 5 Things To Know About Washington Legislature
Sunday marks the 105th and final day of the Washington Legislature’s regular session. At this point a special session appears inevitable because House Democrats and Senate Republicans are nowhere near to agreeing on an operating budget for the next two years. Here are five things to know about the 2015 Washington legislature.
- Budget negotiations are stalled. Continuing resolutions and other budget Band-Aids are the norm in the “other” Washington. But not here. If there’s no budget on July 1, state government would shut down. That almost happened two years ago. Budget negotiations are currently at a standstill in Olympia and the big fight is over taxes. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and majority Democrats in the House say higher taxes are needed to fully fund education and protect social services, while majority Republicans in the Senate say taxes should be a “last resort.”
- 1,800 bills didn’t make it. Washington lawmakers introduced about 2,200 bills this year. They’ve now winnowed that list to fewer than 400. Among the bills that died: the governor's cap-and-trade carbon emissions reduction program; a distracted driving measure that would have banned smartphone use, even at a traffic light; a $12 per hour state minimum wage; a slate of pro-nuclear bills, including ones to encourage the development of small modular nuclear reactors; a requirement that citizen initiatives come with a fiscal impact warning label; a state voting rights act.
- What passed: medical marijuana, medical school. Lawmakers have sent Inslee about 50 bills for his signature. They include regulation of Washington’s “wild, wild West” medical marijuana industry; an end to the University of Washington’s monopoly on public medical education in Washington, paving the way for Washington State University to open a medical school in Spokane; a post-Oso landslide requirement that the Department of Natural Resources use the best available technology to identify and map geological hazards; a measure to allow bicycles and mopeds to stop and then proceed through red lights in certain cases; Joel’s Law to allow families to petition a court to involuntarily commit their mentally ill loved ones.
- Gas tax, oil trains and mental health are still in play. Besides the budget, Washington lawmakers continue to work on a nearly 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase to fund the next 16 years’ worth of road projects. Lawmakers also expect to find agreement on two high profile issues: an overhaul of the state’s recreational marijuana law including a new single point of taxation, and a new regulations and taxes for oil trains moving through the state.
- Special sessions have become the new normal. Special sessions have become common in recent years mainly because of the fallout from the Great Recession and, more recently, because of divided government. Lawmakers did finish on time last year but in 2013 they went into double overtime adjourning June 29, just before a state government shutdown. The governor calls a special session and it automatically puts 30 days on the clock. Some years all lawmakers return to Olympia. Other years just the budget negotiators return until they have a deal. This is called a “rolling recess.” The cost of a special session can vary greatly depending on how many lawmakers are needed in the Capitol and how many accept per diem. In 2012, 31 days of special session cost nearly $291,000.