Washington policy wonks get a second Christmas in a little over a week, when the 2018 Washington Legislature convenes for a short two-month session.
The session starts Jan. 8 and lawmakers face a a daunting to-do list.
Tri-City lawmakers lists include:
▪ Making it easier to control cannabis businesses.
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▪ Prevent a raid on the state’s rainy day fund.
▪ Preserve Prosser’s Princess Theatre and Pasco’s Old Tower.
▪ Push for district-based council elections like Pasco recently adopted and change the way irrigation districts vote.
Statewide, they must pass a 10-figure supplemental budget, wade through an avalanche of new bills and contend with unfinished business held over from the 2017.
That includes the standoff over the $4.5 billion capital projects, currently at a standstill in the Senate, where Republican leaders insist on passing a legislative fix to the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision concerning rural water rights.
The opening days will bring something of extra interest to Tri-Citians.
Gov. Jay Inslee gives the annual State of the State address at noon. Jan. 9 in the House Chamber. The Republican Party has tapped Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, to give its response.
Brown said she will focus on the accomplishments of the Senate in the four years under Republican control — funding education, levy form, maintaining a balanced budget, expanding access to higher education, reducing in-state resident tuition and a $16 billion transportation budget, to name a few.
“We’ve been able to put the needs of citizens ahead of party politics, for the most part,” she said.
Here’s a look at some of the hot topics Brown and her fellow Eighth District representatives, Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, and Larry Haler, R-Richland, plan to tackle
Rainy day fund showdown
The 2018 update to the $43.7 million, two-year operating budget passed last year promises to produce plenty of drama and a showdown over the state’s $2.3 billion reserve fund, the so-called “rainy day fund.”
The governor’s proposed budget, released In December, makes a bold move to use $950 million from the state’s budget reserves to fund K-12 staff salary increases earlier than planned.
The 2017 education bill, drafted to answer the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling that Washington unconstitutionally underfunds K-12 education, scheduled the increases for 2019, a move the court rejected.
The governor’s budget also includes $4.5 billion to implement the capital budget.
We just don’t have enough money to answer the court right now.
Rep. Larry Haler
The 2017 Legislature did not pass the capital spending plan after Senate Republicans insisted the state first address the rural water issues raised in the Hirst decision. The governor also budgets lesser amounts to cover an anticipated shortfall in the state’s Medicaid program and other government functions.
Raiding the reserve fund at a time when the state economy and tax revenue is growing is a non-starter, said Tri-City Republicans.
Brown said she will push for a sustainable budget that doesn’t rely on a one-time resource for ongoing expenses.
“There will be push back on the governor’s budget,” she said.
Haler said he too will resist tapping the state’s reserves to implement the McCleary plan two years ahead of the Legislature’s plan, but in accordance with the Supreme Court’s view.
“We just don’t have enough money to answer the court right now,” he said. He wants to see how the first phase of the McCleary plan settles out and how districts accommodate the increase in per-student funding.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “”A lot of schools are scrambling to figure it out and they’ve never had this much money.”
That rainy day fund is essential. We must not bleed it down to dangerous levels.
Rep. Brad Klippert
Klippert said it’s essential to protect the reserves for actual emergencies. The state needs that money to fight forest fires and, he noted, needs a reserve in place to handle other natural disasters, including earthquakes.
“That rainy day fund is essential. We must not bleed it down to dangerous levels,” he said.
The Tri-City Republicans have a powerful partner in another Tri-City Republican, Washington State Treasurer Duane Davidson.
In his first year in office, the former Benton County Treasurer has identified the state’s growing reliance on debt as well as raids on the rainy day fund as cause for financial concern.
The capital budget promises to be another flashpoint.
While Republicans link it to the Hirst decision, backers say getting it passed is critical to the myriad of projects it would support and the 19,000 jobs attached to it.
Locally, the capital budget has earmarks for a broad array of projects, from university buildings to efforts to preserve Prosser’s Princess Theatre and Pasco’s Old Tower, which served Naval Air Station Pasco during World War II.
Brown said passing the capital budget is critical, but she is not willing to give up a permanent fix to Hirst. The current proposals to waive the decision for two years or to delay a decision are both unacceptable, she said.
Government and taxation
Brown said economic development remains a top priority. She has long pushed to revive the Local Revitalization Program, a package of tools that Kennewick and Richland have leveraged to promote development at Southridge and Horn Rapids.
She called it an impactful program that helps communities develop vibrant economies.
Haler is promoting a bipartisan bill with Rep. Mia Gregerson, a SeaTac Democrat, that would require local governments to adopt district-based election systems when they reach a certain population level, possibly the 20,000 mark.
House Bill 1800 stalled in the rules committee last year. It is modeled on the experiences of Yakima and Pasco, which both were sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for at-large elections that left Latinos underrepresented on their councils. Both have adopted district-based council elections that have led to more diverse representation.
Haler said he wants to avoid litigation expenses and improve representation at all levels of government.
“I’m interested in making sure everybody has a voice in their city or their utility,” he said.
Haler is also pushing a bill that would bring irrigation district elections under the purview of local auditors. Voters would choose their elected leaders on the general ballot rather than reporting to the district office to vote.
Klippert has emerged as the go-to lawmaker for Benton County residents frustrated that it allowed cannabis and processors to establish a foothold in unincorporated areas after the state’s voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana.
Benton County was one of the few local jurisdictions that didn’t pass bans. Klippert said he will introduce bills to give local governments more tools to regulate and eliminate cannabis businesses.
The issue emerged locally when The Garden LLC, operating as Nirvana Cannabis, moved to open a store on an island on Arena Road, immediately bordering a West Richland neighborhood as well as church and preschool. Cannabis businesses aren’t permitted within 1,000 feet of schools, but the West Richland preschool did not trigger the exclusion.
Klippert’s bill would exclude that. He is also pushing a bill that wold allow local jurisdictions to have a greater say over cannabis-related license renewals.
Haler said his top priority is a bill pending in the House Rules committee after failing to pass in the Senate in 2017. House Bill 1723 makes it easier for Hanford workers to claim certain site-related conditions under the state’s industrial insurance program.