With Democrats in control of the state Senate, Sen. Sharon Nelson of Maury Island and Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island will help chart a course for the 60-day legislative session that begins Monday.
OLYMPIA — Hanging in Sharon Nelson’s new office is a popular print depicting a group of ducks crammed into a small, open boat in dark, stormy seas — a version of the allegorical “Ship of Fools.”
It’s a reminder for Nelson, the Washington state Senate’s new Democratic majority leader, to question her decisions.
“Sometimes you have to take a look around with a little sense of humor and go ‘Hmm, is everything running the way I should be running things?’ ” said the 66-year-old from Maury Island.
As she charts a course into the 60-day legislative session that begins Monday, Nelson might often find herself asking that question.
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Senate Democrats have placed their hopes in the former banker, environmental activist and chief of staff for then-King County Councilmember Dow Constantine.
Along with new Democratic budget writer Sen. Christine Rolfes and other leaders, Nelson — elected to the Senate in 2010 after a few years in the House — must navigate a Democratic Legislature operating with the thinnest of margins.
Nelson leads a Senate with a one-vote majority, wrung from the Democratic victory in November’s 45th District Senate election. Her House counterpart, Democratic Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle, has a similarly slim two-vote majority.
Lawmakers are tasked with finding an agreement to satisfy the Washington state Supreme Court’s latest K-12 education-funding order — which could potentially cost $1 billion.
And Democrats and Republicans remained deadlocked over a $4 billion capital-construction budget and rural water-use legislation. Senate Republicans last year blocked passage of the capital budget when Democrats didn’t approve their water-use bill.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope to pass legislation that stalled under divided government on gun-safety regulations, women’s reproductive health and voting rights.
And spurred by reports of harassment and questions about the state Capitol’s culture, lawmakers are re-evaluating how the Legislature handles workplace complaints.
Little of that promises to be easy. But fellow Democrats point to Nelson’s success with getting the caucus back on its feet after a pair of rocky episodes in recent years.
In 2013, the executive director of the Democratic Senate’s campaign committee pleaded guilty to stealing at least $330,000 in campaign contributions, which he spent on alcohol and gambling.
Nelson “came in after that and went on the campaign committee and got it cleaned up and reorganized,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. Pedersen and Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, also say Nelson helped rebuild the caucus after two Democratic senators defected in late 2012 to join Republicans in a governing coalition that lasted until this fall.
That coup led Senate Democrats to become “the doormats of the Legislature” for a time, Frockt said. Since then, “I think Sharon has done a really incredible job of building unity and a sense of: We’re going to rise together if we rise at all,” said Frockt.
Republicans may no longer control the chamber — but they still hold leverage. At least one of this year’s key votes, a bill to authorize the sale of bonds to fund the capital budget, requires 60 percent approval.
And Republican leaders have made it clear they’re not particularly interested in further appeasing the court on K-12 funding, or passing a capital budget without a compromise on water-use legislation.
For Nelson and the Democrats, their one-vote margin means the difference between success and chaos.
“We lose one person,” Pedersen said, “and we lose control of the floor.”
McCleary still looms
This year, the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on K-12 school funding is again driving much of the discussion in Olympia. Lawmakers last year approved a sprawling, long-awaited plan that pumps billions of new dollars from the state into the K-12 system.
But in November, the justices ruled the plan didn’t move fast enough to fully fund education by the longstanding September 2018 deadline. The court suggested that could be fixed by a one-time addition of about $1 billion.
Rolfes, the budget writer and new chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is no stranger to the long-running saga of the 2012 court decision. A former Bainbridge Island City Council member first elected to the House in 2006, Rolfes, 50, has for years been at the center of efforts to boost K-12 funding to comply with the court.
That culminated with her role in the eight-member “McCleary group” that drafted the complicated plan approved last summer. The school-funding plan increased the state property tax while lowering and capping the local property taxes collected by the state’s 295 school districts.
Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, described Rolfes as a good listener who can absorb different views before making her own arguments.
“Legislators like to hear ourselves talk — that’s kind of the running joke out in the public,” said Taylor, another McCleary group member. “I’ve never felt Christine did that.”
And yet it’s far from certain whether Rolfes and others can agree on adding more money to the K-12 system.
In his supplemental budget plan, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed drawing $950 million from budget reserves to fund schools. Inslee then suggested implementing a carbon tax to replenish the state’s reserves.
Taylor and other Republicans have expressed deep reservations about spending more to satisfy the court — and questioned whether a one-time sum would actually improve education.
In an interview, Rolfes wouldn’t commit to whether lawmakers should put $1 billion more into schools, as suggested by the court. “We’re going to talk about it,” she said.
Rather than dip into budget reserves, Rolfes suggested lawmakers fund schools through a one-time revenue boost. For example, they could temporarily cut all the state’s business-tax exemptions by a small percentage.
“I don’t know that there’s legislative support for that,” she said. “But that seems the most fair to me.”
Democrats and Republicans also remain gridlocked on rural water-use legislation and the capital construction budget, which would include nearly $1 billion in new school-construction money.
Democrats last year couldn’t agree to roll back a state Supreme Court water-use decision, a move sought by Republicans. That 2016 ruling — known as the Hirst decision — halted drilling of certain domestic water wells and put a damper on some rural housing construction.
In turn, the Senate GOP refused to pass the capital construction budget.
With a 60 percent vote needed to approve the bonds that fund the capital budget, Nelson must either help find a solution to Hirst or entice five GOP senators to break ranks. In the meantime, Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, isn’t budging.
“We said Hirst first, an acceptable Hirst fix, and we meant it,“ said Schoesler. “Some people, I guess, didn’t think we meant it.”
As a compromise last year, Democrats offered to temporarily allow drilling for affected domestic wells while lawmakers could find an agreement. A new Democratic proposal, SB 6091, is scheduled for a public hearing Monday afternoon.
Democrats are also eager to pass priorities of theirs that have stalled in the previously GOP-controlled Senate. Those issues include a state voting-rights act, legislation on women’s reproductive health, campaign-finance-disclosure laws, gun-safety regulations, and a nutrition program for students in high-needs schools that’s known as “breakfast after the bell.”
Passing those bills would start incremental progress on Democratic priorities, much like the incremental progress the Legislature made over several years on same-sex marriage, Nelson said.
“We built a foundation over a course of years, to the ultimate goal,” she said. “You build a foundation this year — [for example] on reproductive health — you take a look at what’s happening, and you build the next step.”