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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."

Partisan Tensions, Tough Fights Marked 2016 Session In Olympia

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Charter Schools, police accountability and the accidental early release of prison inmates were among the hot issues in the 2016 Washington Legislature .

A 30-day special session of the Washington Legislature is about half over. But there’s still no agreement between Senate Republicans and House Democrats on an update to the state’s two-year budget. Sharp moments of election-year partisan tensions have been on display since lawmakers convened in January.

Arguably the sharpest of those moments came in February when majority Republicans in the state Senate decided not to confirm Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson. She’d been appointed three years earlier by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee.

Senate budget chair Andy Hill was the first to make the case for firing Peterson.

“This is a very, very serious decision,” Hill said. “But I have no confidence that the agency is in a position to fix the problems that they have without a change at the top.”

Democrats jumped to Peterson’s defense. But there was nothing they could do to save her job. It marked the first time in 20 years the state Senate had voted not to confirm a gubernatorial appointment.

The following Monday, Governor Inslee held an angry news conference.

“Senate Republicans should be ashamed of what they did last Friday,” Inslee said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler fired back that if Inslee would “hold his agency heads accountable, no one else would need to.”

Heated debates over education

Relations between the Democratic governor -- who’s up for re-election -- and Senate Republicans did not improve as the session wore on.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee issued subpoenas and held a series of hearings on the accidental early release of nearly 3,000 prison inmates over a 13-year period. Once again Republicans zeroed in on whether Inslee was doing enough to hold his agency heads accountable.

But even as partisan tensions simmered, and sometimes flared, the business of the legislature continued. The first bill signed by Inslee was a bipartisan pledge by lawmakers to take action next year to end the dependence on local school levies to fund public schools. The state has until 2018 to fully fund basic education by order of the Washington Supreme Court.

Lawmakers also voted to try to resurrect voter-approved charter schools after the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. This was a top priority of Republicans like Schoesler.

“If you sat through those hearings and listened to the teachers, students, the parents, I don’t know how you could find it in your heart to vote against it,” he said.

But many Democrats did vote “no” on the belief that charter schools lack accountability and siphon resources from public schools.

State Rep. Mike Sells was booed when he suggested on the House floor that moneyed special interests are behind charters.

“Now this isn’t about kids,” Sells said. “What this is about were those 22 high-priced lobbyists out there the last few days.”

Also on the education front, lawmakers sent the governor a hard-fought measure that bans long-term suspensions or expulsions of students as a form of discretionary discipline.

The 'bathroom bill' and other failed measures

Police accountability was another theme during the 2016 Washington legislative session. Lawmakers voted to create a task force to examine police use of deadly force. And they approved a hotly debated police body camera measure.

Other hot topics in the Washington legislature this year included: the state’s teacher shortage, truancy, homelessness and problems at Western State Hospital.

If more than 250 bills passed, hundreds more fell short. They include: a state Voting Rights Act backed by Democrats. and a bipartisan push to regulate e-cigarettes.

Some of the biggest crowds of the session turned out for hearings on what some Republicans took to calling the “bathroom bill.” This was a Republican-led effort to repeal a new state rule that says transgender people can access the restroom or locker room of their choice. The repeal effort made it all the way to the floor of the state Senate where it was voted down.

Something else that didn’t happen this year: any attempt to impeach indicted State Auditor Troy Kelley who is now on trial in federal court for alleged crimes related to his past real estate services business.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."