New Bites at the Apple
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
NEW BITES AT THE APPLE: The Washington State Senate is taking a second bite at several familiar apples in Olympia this session; and the Fourth Corner has a new senator to take a fresh taste.
Anacortes City Council Member Liz Lovelett was sworn into the 40th District last week, bringing the senate up to the full membership of 49.
Lovelett was appointed to replace Sen. Kevin Ranker, who resigned at the outset of the current session. She was supported in her application by the three-member San Juan County Council and two of three Skagit County commissioners. That was enough to confirm the progressive Democrat—notwithstanding the usual procedural chaos of Whatcom County Council. Two of seven members abstained from voting in protest of the process; and the remainder (despite the fact that nearly half the voters of the 40th LD reside in Whatcom County) had insufficient coordinated votes among them to turn the outcome.
Lovelett is an excellent choice to hold the position until a special election next November—and perhaps beyond. On Anacortes City Council, Lovelett was the author and champion of a strategic plan for affordable housing for that city, according to a news release by state Senate Democrats.
Despite the brisk turnaround in her selection, Lovelett missed a few key votes in the early session as the Legislature hurtles toward the cutoff date to introduce and pass new bills in their house of origin. Bills passed in either house will still need to be reconciled in the remainder of their 105-day regular session.
Nearly 1,850 measures have been introduced so far. Of that number, some 135 bills have been passed in their originating committee so far. The Senate has scheduled 22 measures on its floor calendar for action in the coming days.
Among bills introduced so far, a strengthened Democratic majority in both houses appears focused on revisiting and refining legislation passed by slimmer and more contentious majorities in past sessions.
Surprising no one, lawmakers in their first votes of the session quickly passed a resolution (House Concurrent Resolution 4401) on legislative ethical conduct, and a compromise bill (House Bill 1064) to amend Initiative 940, which was approved by state voters last November.
HCR 4401 sets a code of ethical behavior for legislators, staff, lobbyists and members of the state capital community in general, requiring that they conduct themselves with professionalism, and refrain from engaging in hostile, intimidating or offensive behavior that may amount to discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, or bullying.
House Bill 1064 modifies the provisions of Initiative 940 relating to de-escalation training for police and investigations of the use of deadly force. Modifications to Initiative 940 were included in a bill last session after agreement among law enforcement and community leaders, but the state Supreme Court ordered that the original measure be placed before voters.
Washington state law establishes that for two years an initiative that was approved by voters can only be amended or repealed by a two-thirds supermajority vote in both chambers. They easily had that, and their action simply resets the law as it existed prior to the high court’s ruling. Governor Jay Inlsee signed the restored bill into law last week.
The new Democratic majority appears intent on reviewing and revising other problematic legislation, notably the “McCleary fix.”
Approved in 2017 with slim majorities in both houses, the fix was hailed as landmark legislation that assured Washington was finally paying its fair share for the basic education of children from kindergarten through high school. But the McCleary fix didn’t fix everything.
Basic education, as defined by state law, is not everything a school district offers. Special education, although mandated, isn’t part of basic education, nor is early childhood education. School districts remain under financial pressure to fund these mandates.
And the fix also broke a few things, too, notably the state’s property tax system that funds schools. The 2017 compromise rejiggered school levies around the state, raising millage rates in some districts while lowering them in others. Many districts—particularly those around the Puget Sound area—are struggling to regain equilibrium.
Several senators have proposed a radical solution, which would make it easier for districts to pass their future levies.
Under the Washington Constitution, a property tax levy for bonds like those used for school construction and major renovations requires a 60 percent majority to pass. The Senate has proposals for two constitutional amendments: One would change that requirement to a simple majority. An alternate proposal would change the requirement to a smaller supermajority of 55 percent.
Those proposals remain in committee.
Finally, the new Legislature appears intent on revisiting a controversy from last session, the issue of how the state’s public records laws would apply to the legislature.
Senate Bill 5784 is similar to a bill lawmakers pushed through in record time last year, which would have exempted legislators from the Public Records Act. Passed by so-called “veto-proof” majorities in both chambers, outraged citizens overwhelmed the governor’s office with demands that he block the bill. In the end, Governor Inslee vetoed the bill. Lawmakers backed down.
A lawsuit to force legislators to work under the same open records laws as other elected officials is pending before the state Supreme Court, and SB 5784 is seen by many as an attempt by legislators to supersede the case, in the event a court ruling doesn’t go their way, notes Franz Wiechers-Gregory of the Washington Policy Center.
Ranker was one of only two senate Democrats who originally voted against changes to the state’s public records laws. Now his replacement gets her turn to consider the issue.