OLYMPIA — As legislative sessions go, this was largely a forgettable one.
State lawmakers finished their two-month session Thursday night by passing an operating budget that slightly increased state spending and then heading home without dealing with a plethora of other major issues.
The discarded bills included compromise measures to incorporate state test scores in teacher evaluations, address oil-transportation safety, increase involuntary commitments for mental-health treatment and reconcile the medical-marijuana system with the new recreational-pot industry, to say nothing of more partisan proposals.
For the first time since 1996, lawmakers could not agree on a construction budget — despite a version of the plan passing 92-4 in the state House.
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Last May’s Interstate 5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River was not enough to persuade the parties to come together to pass a long-negotiated, multibillion dollar transportation package.
And a state Supreme Court order to boost K-12 education funding was only enough to garner $58 million in new money. Gov. Jay Inslee had asked for $200 million in January.
So unremarkable was the session that it took a last-minute deal to pass a bill supported by Inslee and every single lawmaker. That measure, to give in-state tuition to out-of-state veterans, had stalled over a squabble over which side would get credit, but finally passed two hours before the midnight deadline.
Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, described it as “a treading-water session.”
“It may just be the reality of divided government,” said Sells, “but we have a number of issues in this state we can’t seem to get a handle on.”
Republicans run the Senate, while Democrats control the House and governor’s office.
Asked for a highlight of the election-year session, Sells said that, “we’re going to get out on time. You could say that’s a good thing.”
Others saw more positives in the lack of action.
“I think we got a lot done,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, Mason County, who is part of the Senate’s GOP-led majority coalition. “We didn’t raise your taxes, we didn’t send them (voters) a transportation bill they would have rejected. We kept the lid on spending.”
In a news conference after midnight, Inslee said he was simultaneously overjoyed and deeply frustrated by the session.
“This is divided government,” he said, “that should not be a shock to us.”
Some important legislation did make it through.
Early on, lawmakers approved a bill allowing financial aid for students illegally brought to the United States as children.
They also passed measures to seal most juvenile court records, ban minors from using tanning beds and regulate the use of drones by public agencies.
Legislators punted on two gun-related initiatives — one to establish universal background checks for gun sales and the other to prevent the checks — but did OK a bill to make some people under restraining orders temporarily give up their firearms.
On the session’s final day, lawmakers agreed to something that some had worked on for several years: raise the number of credits required for a high-school diploma from 20 to 24.
And, at the last moment, they passed the veterans bill and another priority measure to extend for four years a document-recording fee to pay for homeless programs.
In addition to putting an additional $58 million into K-12 education materials and operating costs, the agreed-upon operating budget also increases funding for the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship and mental-health-care services — something Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, called a “significant down payment” to address a system that has recently come under criticism.
Overall, it would increase the state’s $33.6 billion, two-year budget by about $155 million, of which $89 million would pay for increased costs of running state services and the rest for new spending.
The budget passed the state House 85-13 and the Senate 48-1. It now goes to Inslee, who is expected to sign it.
Senate budget writer Andy Hill, R-Redmond, noted the bipartisan budget would keep college tuition flat for another year.
House Democrats, who tried unsuccessfully to close tax breaks or give teachers a cost-of-living raise, said the budget focuses on areas of agreement.
“This is what we can both agree on and get done,” said House budget writer Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said. “We have more work to do next year.”
It is expected to eventually cost billions of dollars to fulfill the state Supreme Court order to fund schools.
Hunter said the justices were not likely to be satisfied by the Legislature’s work this session.
If so, they would not be the only ones.
Many discarded proposals
Lawmakers from both parties and chambers lamented the failure of a variety of bills.
Perhaps the biggest was the teacher-evaluation measure, which supporters — including Inslee and Republicans — said was necessary to obtain a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. The waiver would allow the state to keep control of roughly $40 million in federal funding.
Democrats introduced the measure but eventually killed it after the state teachers union argued the tests would not be a good indicator of teacher skill.
Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, called the bill’s death “a huge step backward for the state.”
Democrats, meanwhile, complained most about the construction budget’s failure.
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said in a news release that the plan “would have built vital infrastructure and created 2,500 family wage jobs for Washingtonians.”
She forced a Wednesday afternoon floor vote on the measure, but the GOP-led majority held together in a 26-23 vote against it.
Senate Republicans also defeated a measure to increase regulation and disclosure of oil transportation.
State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, said lawmakers “were very, very close to reaching a compromise.”
“My hope is we can look at it next session,” said Farrell, noting the budget included some money to study the issue.
Two other major issues were tabled in favor of study: marijuana and mental health.
The pot bill, which would have addressed the unregulated medical-marijuana system and make logistical changes to the recreational system, was felled by disagreements over who would benefit from tax revenue. Inslee made an unsuccessful last-minute push for it.
“It’s a real loss for the patients of this state,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, Clark County.
The mental-health measure, which would give people the right to appeal if officials chose not to involuntarily commit a family member, lost due to cost concerns.
The bill was conceived by Doug and Nancy Reuter, parents of a mentally ill Capitol Hill man who was fatally shot after firing at police last July.
The Reuters hoped the idea would live on.
“There’s a task force talking about mental health this summer, and I think they’ll seriously consider this,” Nancy Reuter said.
“In a way, this has only just begun.”
Staff reporter Ashley Stewart contributed to this report.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195
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