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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."

As Democrats Prepare To Take Control Of Olympia, Partisanship Flares

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is calling on lawmakers to pass a carbon tax, a series of gun-related measures and repeal the death penalty during the 2018 legislative session. "

The Washington Legislature convenes Monday for a 60-day election year session. For the first time since 2013, Democrats will have one-party control of the Capitol.

The top issues include: education funding, a carbon tax and passage of a state capital construction budget.

The start of the legislative session is a bit like a family getting together for the holidays—everyone has their agenda. Gov. Jay Inslee wants passage of a state Voting Rights Act and repeal of the death penalty. He’s also urging lawmakers to pass a package of what he calls “gun safety” measures.

“Including a ban on bump stocks, safe storage and closing the background check loophole on long-barrel guns,” Inslee said.

Inslee also plans to take another run at convincing lawmakers to embrace some sort of tax on industrial carbon emissions.

“The state needs it, our kids need it and I think this is the year I hope people will bring it,” he said.

For the first time since he became governor, Inslee will have a legislature controlled by his own party. But that’s no guarantee of success. The margins are thin: just one vote Democratic advantages in both the House and Senate.

At a forum hosted by the Associated Press last week, legislative leaders were quick to say not much will happen without bipartisan support.

Perhaps the biggest decision facing lawmakers in 2018 is how to address a state Supreme Court order that says their plan to fully fund schools by next school year is $1 billion short. Inslee wants to dip into state reserves to come up with the money.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a fellow Democrat, said he’s open to that idea.

“The use of reserves is an option that we have to consider,” Sullivan said.

But it doesn’t sit well with John Braun, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s budget committee.

“Are we willing to use reserve funds? I frankly don’t think we should use reserve funds,” he said.

There’s even a debate about whether to comply with the Supreme Court at all. David

“At this point, no, I do not believe we need to speed up the implementation schedule.” said Republican David Taylor who’s on a K-12 funding workgroup.

But Senate budget chair Christine Rolfes, a Democrat, cautions against the legislature thumbing its nose at the court.

“I’d rather work on a path forward for complying with what the court has mandated from us rather than just standing here and saying you don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

Democrats and Republicans also remain divided on another big issue—one that’s carrying over from last year: how to address a Supreme Court decision in a case known as the Hirst decision that’s making it harder for suburban and rural property owners to drill drinking water wells.

Caught up in this fight is the state’s capital construction budget. It funds things like new school buildings and local water and sewer systems. Last year, Senate Republicans refused to pass the capital budget without a so-called “fix” to the well issue. That means delayed projects around the state.

Democrats like Speaker of the House Frank Chopp are eager to get the capital budget passed and then deal with a so-called “Hirst fix.”

“It was not the right thing to do to link the capital budget to a separate issue,” Chopp said. “That’s the first time in state history it’s been done.”

But Senate Republicans show no sign of backing down. Minority leader Mark Schoesler said the Hirst decision is making it really hard for people to build in rural areas.

“We want a capital budget as much as anybody,” he said. “But if you’re in an area that uses exempt wells, you’re over.”

As Senate Republicans shift into the minority, they’re playing up the idea of an urban-rural split in Washington. They’ve adopted the term “Emerald City Curtain” to describe what they view as a divide between liberal Seattle and the rest of the state.

While many issues do split along regional and party lines. Republicans and Democrats are vowing to work together in 2018 on some issues like mental health and how to address sexual harassment at the state Capitol.

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."