AN exceptionally partisan Legislative session began, ironically, with the promise of bipartisanship. Two conservative Senate Democrats crossed the aisle to join 23 Republicans, and the fledgling Majority Coalition quickly extended an olive branch to spurned Democrats, offering to split control of legislative committees.
After two contentious special sessions, the final budget signed on Sunday — right at the brink of Washington’s version of the fiscal cliff — is as close to the political center as imaginable. It adds $1 billion to basic education, a leap toward fulfilling the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling requiring the state to fully fund schools. College tuition is capped for first time since 1986. The social-safety net is preserved.
All this without a significant hike in taxes.
The Senate Majority, led by Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, deserves much credit. After seven years of one-party rule by Democrats, it nudged the Legislature toward the political center.
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Reforms to the K-12 system — a focus on third-grade-reading proficiency, academic rigor and limiting suspensions and expulsions — fulfilled the Majority’s core promise. The budget embraced Medicaid expansion, opening health insurance for up to 250,000 people.
There was a cost to empowering the conservative fringe. Anti-tax purists killed a $10 billion transportation proposal despite broad support among business leaders. And the coalition showed its fragility in failing to vote on the Dream Act, which would have opened state financial aid to high-achieving undocumented students.
Across the Capitol rotunda, the House Democratic majority displayed seasoned leadership. It proved more ideologically flexible, backing off hot-button issues such as abortion coverage in order to broker a final budget. It met the Senate more than halfway on revenue proposals, while reversing onerous cuts to the mental-health system and other social services.
The final budget is imperfect. It steals $277 million from a capital-projects account used by local governments. Such a gimmick should be saved for a rainy day, and, with the economy rebounding, this is anything but.
After lawmakers return home and rediscover their lives outside of Olympia, work should begin on the next steps toward fulfilling the McCleary decision. Promising reforms, including empowering principals to pick their teaching staff, should be polished and reintroduced next year.
By most measures, the Legislature will need to add another $1 billion to K-12. Doing so within the existing tax code is unrealistic. The Legislature wisely added a sunset clause and transparency requirements to some tax exemptions. Lawmakers should build on that, taking a hard look at the state’s swiss-cheese tax code and target unjustified exemptions.
Most important, work should continue on a comprehensive transportation-funding package in the next few months. The mid-session collapse of the Skagit River Bridge was a stark reminder that vital infrastructure won’t fix itself.