Washington state lawmakers in recent years are passing fewer bills, even as they set records for the amount of time spent in session. Is Olympia becoming like “the other Washington?”
OLYMPIA — The other Washington.
Our state politicians often use those three words as a shorthand to contrast how much better state government works compared with the gridlock and strife in the nation’s capital.
But under divided government, Washington state lawmakers in recent years have wrestled with record-long legislative sessions, brinkmanship that threatened state government shutdowns, and closed-door negotiations over critical budget and education proposals.
And they’re passing less legislation, too.
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In their record-long 193 days in Olympia this year, lawmakers passed 377 bills through the Legislature. That’s the second-lowest number for a budget-writing session going back to at least 1983, according to state records.
The only budget-writing session to produce less legislation in that time frame came in 2015, when lawmakers approved 363 bills.
The battles that year over a state operating budget and K-12 education spilled into July, making for the longest legislative season in history — until this year.
Legislators have wrestled with split control in other years over the past three decades — yet still passed more legislation.
Between 1983 and 2017, lawmakers passed an average of 460 bills during budget-writing sessions, which occur in odd-numbered years.The regular sessions are scheduled to last 105 days, but lawmakers have had to rely on special sessions to complete their work.
Republicans in recent years have controlled the Senate with a coalition — which currently includes one conservative Democrat — that now operates with a one-vote majority. Democrats have a two-vote edge in the state House, as well as holding the governor’s office.
Both Democratic and Republican officials say counting bills is a poor measurement of work, since many bills are small, technical or noncontroversial.
And they highlight this year’s big achievements. Legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee approved a hard-fought K-12 school funding plan they hope will resolve the state Supreme Court’s landmark McCleary decision and a new two-year operating budget.
They signed off on paid family-leave legislation, a secure driver’s license law and a new state agency focusing on youth and families. Bills to strengthen distracted driving and DUI laws also reached Inslee’s desk.
Some Washingtonians, depending on their political leanings, might even prefer less legislation coming out of Olympia.
But lawmakers desperately wanted to pass at least two more bills — and couldn’t.
Absent an agreement on rural water-use legislation to address another state Supreme Court decision, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to move forward on a $4 billion capital construction budget.
As the legislative session stretched deep into July, Democrats and Republicans tried to find an acceptable compromise. But the clock ran out, the session ended, and the stalemate continues.
Meanwhile, lawmakers negotiated several of this year’s accomplishments behind closed doors, to the frustration of many.
Responding to a survey by pollster Stuart Elway about the long, contentious session, one anonymous lobbyist said: “I thought this was the good Washington.”
High stakes in November
Some current and former Washington lawmakers argue increasing polarization, the rise of partisan social media and the increasing costs of elections make it harder for legislators to do their jobs.
One those is Rodney Tom, a former Democratic state senator from Medina who in 2013 crossed the aisle to help form the Republican Senate majority coalition.
“There’s just not that many people in Olympia anymore that are willing to buck their party,” said Tom, who retired in 2014.
Others dismiss the notion that lawmakers are more partisan now than in the past.
“I think everybody thinks that things would go better if the other side just agreed with them more,” said David Schumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management. “I think that’s the long history of politics.”
But Schumacher notes that the budget-writing process has appeared to suffer. For three consecutive budget sessions, lawmakers have just barely skirted a state government shutdown, which would happen if there’s no new budget by July 1.
“It’s always hard when there’s split government, but it was never June 30 hard,” said Schumacher, referring to the day most lawmakers this year first saw — and voted on — the new budget.
In the wake of this year’s session, Democrats and Republicans have continued to savage each other for failing to pass the capital budget and water-use legislation.
Neither the political situation nor the blame-game are idle exercises.
In November, voters in the Eastside’s 45th Legislative District are set to vote in a special Senate election that will effectively decide whether to keep the Legislature divided, or consolidate power under Democrats.
Since 1983, the high-water mark for legislation in a budget-writing session came in 2009, when lawmakers passed 583 bills through the Legislature. Lawmakers did that in the regularly scheduled 105-day session — no overtime needed.
In 2003, Republicans controlled the Senate by a single vote and Democrats controlled the House by six votes. Yet, lawmakers still passed 452 bills out of the Legislature over 137 days in session.
While legislators that year struggled with a budget shortfall considered at the time the worst in decades, they finished without pushing Washington toward a government shutdown.
“I couldn’t have done that without bipartisan support,” said Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, who was chief GOP budget writer that year.
This year, however, “I didn’t see any of that cooperation [or] thinking about what’s best for the state,” said Rossi, who left the Senate after 2003 but came back temporarily to fill the 45th District Senate seat left empty by the death last fall of Republican Sen. Andy Hill.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, argues that recent years don’t compare easily to history for two big reasons:
The Great Recession slashed tax revenues, forcing lawmakers into years of tough decisions on spending. And legislators have spent years tackling the court’s 2012 McCleary decision, which ruled that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding its schools.
Resolving the McCleary order has dominated lawmakers’ attention during several sessions, including this year, when lawmakers finally produced a full K-12 funding plan.
“The K-12 problem, and the budget that we had to go with it, was the hardest problem we had in Olympia in a couple decades,” said Braun, the chief GOP budget writer who also helped negotiate the bipartisan K-12 funding plan.
Because of those financial pressures, many unrelated bills that would cost money have stalled in recent years, according to Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan of Covington.
Gridlock vs. focus
Sens. Reuven Carlyle and Jamie Pedersen, both Seattle Democrats, have lamented the lack of progress on gun-safety, climate change and child visitation rights for grandparents.
A widely bipartisan bill to protect internet privacy also died in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, wonders why it took more than a year to pass a bill requiring health plans to give 12-month refills of contraceptives for women.
It passed nearly unanimously this year and became law, but a version last year got held up in the Senate.
“Really?” Nelson said. “Why would you wait on that?”
Republicans — and Tom, the former senator — argue that divided government produces more focus and consensus.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville dismisses Democrats’ frustrations, saying, “I just think that they’re a little disappointed that their agenda hasn’t been moving.”
In terms of legislation, “When you have divided government, you avoid extremes,” Schoesler said. “Some of the people probably want greater extremes in public policy.”
“But the things that do happen, I think are in the political center and are well-received,” he added. Besides, “I’ve never had a constituent tell me you’ve got to pass more bills, make more laws.”
Carlyle argues the GOP is “gravitating toward the right” and cites the loss of two moderate Republican senators — Hill and Steve Litzow, who lost re-election in his Mercer Island-area district last November.
Since then, “The folks in that caucus who are aligned with President Trump, philosophically and ideologically … carry a great weight in that caucus, and I just don’t think we should pretend otherwise,” Carlyle said.
Rossi and Braun argue the Democratic-controlled House is veering more to the left.
Braun cites the July letter signed by nearly half of the House Democrats, urging the governor to veto a tax break for manufacturers.
Inslee ultimately did veto that tax break, which had been agreed upon by Democratic and Republican lawmakers as part of the final budget deal.
Nonetheless, Tom said he believes Olympia is still better than the other Washington.
He noted this year’s bipartisan approval of a paid family-leave program, one of the most generous in the nation.
“People still talk and have respect for each other,” Tom said. “Which is the key.”