OLYMPIA — The big stuff can wait.
That, in essence, was what state lawmakers said by ending their 2014 session on time Thursday without addressing a multibillion-dollar transportation package, a state Supreme Court mandate to put more money into education and several other major issues.
The question is whether lawmakers will be any more willing to negotiate next session. The GOP-led majority in the Senate and the Democratic-controlled House have a hard time agreeing on anything, especially when it comes to spending money.
Their polar-opposite views were on full display during the final day of the session.
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Democrats argued that the Legislature will need to come up with billions of dollars in new funding to satisfy the court order, referred to as the McCleary decision:
“Frankly, I think there’s going to need to be some grand compromise to get there,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam. “I have a hard time envisioning how some series of tax-loophole closures and other reductions are going to get us to that McCleary investment.”
But Republicans questioned the need for additional funding.
“One way to look at it is we can absolutely handle McCleary,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond. “We’ve got $33 to $34 billion (in state revenue) coming in. It’s how you handle the rest of government.”
Which viewpoint will win out may very well depend on the fight for control of the Senate in the November elections.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, said the GOP has the edge going in to the midterm elections, but will have to defend several seats, including that of Majority Leader Rodney Tom, of Medina, who identifies as a Democrat but caucuses with the other side.
Democrats have recruited former Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride to challenge Tom, and also are targeting Hill and appointed Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place.
“Bottom line, the fight for the Senate is going to be a war,” Vance said.
But regardless of Senate control, lawmakers will have a lot to deal with next year.
The education debate is almost sure to take center stage because it will be time to craft a 2015-17 operating budget, and the court ordered the action to be in effect by the 2017-18 school year.
House budget writer Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he expects the court later this year to issue a progress report even more scathing than its last, which would add pressure.
But several other difficult issues will demand attention, including transportation, medical marijuana and mental health.
Lawmakers have been urged for years to pass a transportation package, and the urging will only increase after another year for roads to wear down.
The need to address the unregulated medical-marijuana market will rise as the regulated recreational industry gets going.
After a bill to align the two sectors failed Thursday night, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, sent a news release reiterating that “Washington’s medical-marijuana market is outside its legal bounds and was actually deemed ‘untenable’ by the U.S. Attorney General’s office.”
And on mental health, a growing recognition among lawmakers that the current system is dramatically underfunded gives clarity about what to do, but no assistance in how to do it.
“There’s no doubt that we’ve decided we need to do something and now we’re going to need to do it,” said Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle.
The just-finished session also saw the raising of several new issues that some lawmakers hope to address soon, including a potential minimum-wage increase and further study of the huge spike in oil being transported through the state.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, mentioned those issues and others in a news conference after the session adjourned at 11:53 p.m. Thursday.
“I would have liked the legislators to have taken a bigger step this year,” Inslee said. “They should all be ready to strap on their work boots and get to work next January.”
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen said this session was about deciding priorities and starting to make progress “in a moderate fashion.”
“Nobody was saying something was the greatest thing since indoor toilets,” Owen said. “Nobody was saying we struck gold. It was about a hope that we can find it in the future.”
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