9 important topics the Washington Legislature tackled in 2018
OLYMPIA – The 2018 Legislature finished Thursday night with something for almost everyone but with unfulfilled wishes for many.
Contained within their constitutionally mandated 60 days, legislators tweaked their two-year budget – if adding some $1.2 billion in spending can be called a tweak – tackled some tough issues and wrestled some of them to the ground.
It was a historically productive session, some legislators said in the closing hours Thursday.
“It did so many things for so many people,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday, lauding what he called “a smorgasbord” of good legislation.
Other issues slipped away, prompting a comment that may be becoming as familiar to Mariners’ fans as it was for decades to hapless Cubs fans: Wait ’til next year.
Here’s a brief rundown of the done and undone:
One of the biggest debates for the first month of the session was whether legislators would comply with a Supreme Court order to move up the salary increases for teachers and other school staff by a year. Gov. Jay Inslee and Senate Democrats said yes from the start. House Democrats said they’d rather spend the money on other education priorities, a position that put them more in line with Republicans.
In negotiations between the two budget proposals, however, House Democrats came over to the Senate side. There’s a total of $970 million, between the general fund and the court-ordered penalties the Legislature will put in a special account, for K-12 salaries in the supplemental budget. There’s also $27 million extra for special education and $29 million for school employee benefits.
The Legislature also passed “Breakfast After the Bell” saying students who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts can eat even if they arrive late to school.
Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a carbon tax. House Democrats proposed a capital gains tax. Neither passed, although the carbon tax got some serious discussion before being sidelined.
“Maybe the carbon effort is a little bit like the civil rights legislation,” Inslee said, meaning it will have to come back year after year until it passes. “We’ll be back in January.”
Property owners can expect a property tax cut in 2019 as the supplemental budget calls for a one-year cut in the state property tax levy, which was increased last year to help pay for public school improvements. Majority Democrats as a block voted for the tax cut in both chambers; Republicans generally voted no, arguing on the one hand it was too meager, and on the other it was bad policy to reduce reserves through accounting measures to have the money to pay for it.
Capital Construction Budget
In 2017, the Legislature left Olympia without passing a two-year budget for state construction projects. Republicans demanded a change in state water laws to address a state Supreme Court decision that was putting a crimp in suburban and rural development in parts of the state. A regional fix for the court decision was negotiated early in the session and the capital budget passed.
Washington has a new law that bars internet service providers from restricting, slowing or charging some customers more for internet service. It essentially puts in place for Washington the net neutrality standards the Federal Communications Commission repealed last year. State officials say it’s the first such law in the country.
On a completely different type of net – the giant cages in the Puget Sound where commercial aquaculture companies raise Atlantic salmon – the Legislature voted to ban new ones and block the renewal of existing leases for current facilities once they expire. Lawmakers turned back a late-session lobbying blitz by Cooke Aquaculture, the owner of a pen that collapsed last summer and sparked calls for the ban.
The Legislature made it easier for Washington citizens to register to vote, although some Republicans argued it could lead to some non-citizens registering. People who apply for an enhanced driver’s license, which requires proof of citizenship, will be automatically signed up as voters if they aren’t already on the rolls. Those who forget to register until Election Day also will be able to register and vote by going to the county auditor’s office starting in 2019, if a new computer system to track registrations is working by then.
Another bill calls for pre-registering 16 and 17-year-olds when they get their driver’s license, which is the most common way adults come into the system. The teens would get ballots for elections after they turn 18.
Spokane County Commission
Spokane County’s board of commissioners could grow from three to five in 2022, after a special panel is selected to draw boundaries for five districts, where commissioners would run in both the primary and the general elections. Currently, the three commissioners run in their district in the primary, but countywide in the general.
The bill had bipartisan support from legislators who represent various parts of the county, but strong opposition from current and some former commissioners. The three commissioners have asked Inslee to veto the bill, arguing that county voters turned down previous efforts to enlarge the board. Asked about a possible veto, the governor said Friday he hadn’t looked at the issue yet.
The Legislature banned bump-stocks, a device that can cause a semi-automatic rifle to fire so quickly it mimics an automatic rifle. The device was relatively unknown before it was used in the Las Vegas massacre last fall.
An effort to put restrictions on semi-automatic rifles, requiring a buyer to be at least 21 and undergo the more extensive background checks required in Washington for a handgun, was combined with a series of new school safety programs after the Parkland, Florida, school massacre. That bill failed in the final days of the session.
It was one of Inslee’s big disappointments, he said shortly after the session ended.
“We need to get people here who will vote for these measures. You can either change minds, or change seats,” he said.
The supplemental budget has money for a task force to develop strategies to identify and intervene against potential mass shooters and educate the public about extreme risk protection orders. The Legislature also approved a measure that allows a person in mental distress to voluntarily surrender his right to possess or buy firearms, and have those rights restored at his request a week or more later.
A bill to replace the death sentence with life in prison without parole, which was supported by Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, passed the Senate on Feb. 14 but never got a vote in the full House.
The Legislature strengthened equal pay laws for women. It also said workers can’t be forced to sign agreements as a condition of employment that bars them from disclosing information about sexual assault or harassment in the workplace, or to keep them from testifying about it in court or an administrative hearing.