In these even years, the Washington Legislature meets in its short 60-day session to kick the tires on its two-year budget plan, adjusting for revenue that misses or exceeds projections and changes in expenses. This is not usually a time for sweeping policy overhauls. But in the session that convenes Monday, lawmakers should be focused on making major investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Welcome new federal dollars should help with that effort, including addressing a disturbing backlog on maintenance on roads, bridges and ferries. The Legislature whiffed on a proposal last year, and Gov. Jay Inslee failed to make good on his commitment to push transportation when he vetoed key provisions in the climate bill.
In addition, lawmakers should make some refinements to worthy state police reform laws and delay implementation of a not-quite baked long-term care bill.
The Legislature has delayed far too long in passing a meaningful infrastructure improvement package. After talks broke down early in 2021 and remained at an impasse all year, lawmakers must redouble efforts to make a long-term investment in the state’s bridges, roads and transit.
The severe statewide need is undeniable. The state’s aging ferry fleet struggles to meet demand for more than 20 million riders most years. The sorry state of roads is an acute problem in car-dependent areas both rural and urban; 416 bridges were graded as structurally deficient in 2021, including 46 on interstate highways. Critical linkages for West Seattle and neighborhoods west of downtown Spokane are severed by emergency bridge closures.
The underlying chronic problem needs a permanent fix. On average, Washington lawmakers fund only about 40% of the $2 billion state Department of Transportation officials say is annually needed for repairs and maintenance. That demands a change in how the state funds transportation, currently reliant on gas taxes, a withering source of revenue as electric car usage grows. The Legislature should advance that long-term need now — without losing sight of the immediate need.
The good news is lawmakers can use the billions of dollars, available and anticipated, from federal infrastructure spending, state revenue surpluses and the “cap and invest” carbon program without raising the gas tax, and invest today in long-term transportation needs. Key will be scrupulous attention to what is one-time money and what are ongoing revenues. Still, much can be accomplished without fractious debates over gas taxes or new debt.
New Senate Transportation Chair Marko Liias, D-Everett, said the available total, from various sources, amounts to $10 billion or more for the next 10 to 15 years, enough to put a lot of people to work building new ferries and mending old bridges.
A raft of police accountability measures went into effect last year, and public safety agencies across the state reacted differently — some supportive, others confused and a few opposed.
Lawmakers ought to tweak certain aspects. Specifically, legislative clarification should ensure that officers know they will not be held liable for transporting or detaining someone in a mental health crisis.
According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the new law fails to acknowledge the many circumstances where officers must take action in the interest of the public and a person’s own safety. Examples include assisting in the involuntary detention of persons for medical treatment or carrying out court orders to extract a child from a dangerous home. This should be fixed.
In addition, legislators should affirm the valid use of nonlethal large caliber weapons, such as those that use beanbag rounds. These were swept up in last year’s ban on military-style equipment. De-escalation training should also be emphasized and placed on the same level as continuous training with firearms.
To ensure police reforms are applied consistently throughout the state, the Legislature should establish an Office of Independent Prosecution to impartially consider charges against law enforcement officers in egregious use-of-force incidents.
LONG-TERM CARE PROGRAM
In the months since lawmakers enacted a controversial long-term care program, backlash from taxpayers, employers and others has shown that the bill wasn’t ready. Already, lawmakers have filed more than a half-dozen bills aimed at fixing fairness issues in what would be the nation’s first social insurance program aimed at reducing the financial burdens of aging.
First consideration should go to a proposal from House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and former Speaker Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, to delay the launch until July 1, 2023.
Thiswill give lawmakers ample time to fine-tune and build public confidence in the program, originally set to begin this month.
Participants in the WA Cares program can receive a lifetime benefit of $36,500, indexed to inflation, to help offset the costs of personal caregivers, home health or care in a nursing facility, or other supports and modifications for safely aging at home.
Though WA Cares is modeled after universal coverage programs like Medicare, 461,758 Washington workers have opted out of the program and secured similar private insurance, as of Jan. 5. As the law stands, thousands of Washington workers will be required to pay into the system without reaping the benefits. They include people who will be retiring in fewer than 10 years, those who work in Washington but don’t live here and workers who move out of state.
Inslee recently ordered the state Employment Security Department to delay collection of the 0.58% WA Cares payroll deduction until April, to give lawmakers time to address these deficiencies. But that short window won’t give lawmakers sufficient time to fully consider the many proposals that range from extending the benefit to payees living outside the state and to exempting some veterans, military spouses and nonresidents from paying into the program.
SCHOOL GUIDANCE COUNSELORS, NURSES AND RELATED PROFESSIONALS
Nearly two years of pandemic strain have spotlighted the importance of our children’s social and emotional well-being. This session, lawmakers must bolster the state’s historically inadequate funding for school nurses, social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors and other school staff working to safeguard students’ mental and emotional health.
Washington’s current state formula funds one guidance counselor for every 811 elementary or 355 middle-school students — far fewer than the American School Counselor Association’s recommended 1:250 ratio. The existing ratio funds one full-time school nurse for every 5,263 elementary students, 7,200 middle school students or 6,250 students in high school. The ratios are even greater for school psychologists and social workers. These formulas lead to paltry allocations that do not meet student need.
For four years, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has asked lawmakers to adopt more realistic funding formulas. Meanwhile, school districts that can rally voter support have used local property-tax levies to supplement meager state allocations. This practice exacerbates inequities between districts in property-rich communities and those in less well-to-do areas, where local levies are more difficult to pass.
State Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, has scheduled a Jan. 12 hearing for a bill she has filed that would decrease the staff-to-student ratios for counselors, nurses, psychologists and other staff safeguarding students’ physical, social and emotional well-being. This is an important first step toward full state support for these essential positions.
There is little disagreement, even among Inslee’s harshest critics, that a governor must be able to respond quickly during a crisis to ensure safety and security. However, the executive’s power to declare an open-ended state of emergency without timely legislative input must change.
Inslee declared a state of emergency over the pandemic on Feb. 29, 2020. Since then, he has mostly used that power to effectively help protect public health, from initial stay-at-home orders through sweeping vaccine mandates for state workers.
Even as the pandemic continues, things are very different 22 months later. Yet the emergency — and the governor’s power to act unilaterally — remains unchanged. Yes, the voters elect the governor to lead, but they also send 147 lawmakers to Olympia to represent local points of view.
The balance of power demands that lawmakers be active participants. They should not sit on the sidelines any more than policy decisions should be discussed and determined behind closed doors. Public debate and deliberation by lawmakers also can lead to more buy-in — and shared responsibility — for any unpopular, but necessary, safety measures.
Leaders in the Democratically controlled Legislature should consider existing bipartisan bills that limit how long a state of emergency can continue without oversight from the Legislature. It is their duty to safeguard their role in the system of checks and balances that protects our democracy.
Correction: This editorial, first posted on Jan. 7, 2022, was updated on Jan. 10, 2022, to correct the name of the state Department of Transportation, originally misnamed Department of Washington.