Bills that previously languished — such as a tax on carbon, new gun regulations and the repeal of Washington’s death penalty — have gotten committee votes.
OLYMPIA — A carbon tax. A state voting-rights act. A ban on bump stocks for semi-automatic rifles, and proposals to bolster women’s reproductive health.
Those are just a handful of the Democratic bills rolling out of legislative committees or off the Washington Senate floor in what has become a frenzied legislative session.
Emboldened by their new single-seat Senate majority — along with control of the House and the governor’s office — the Democrats are voting morning, afternoon and sometimes late at night.
Now just past the session’s halfway mark, they’re pointing to a string of victories.
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Bills that previously languished in committees — such as a repeal of Washington’s death penalty, the carbon-tax proposal and enhanced background checks for so-called assault rifles — have gotten committee votes.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats quickly passed dozens of bills out of that chamber, including the bump-stock ban, a state voting-rights act and a bill to give some undocumented students financial help for college.
The hyperactive pace of this year’s 60-day short legislative session shows in the numbers.
Senate lawmakers so far have introduced about 625 new bills, according to state records, compared with 532 introduced for the entire 2016 short session.
“It’s been frenetic,” said Senate Democratic Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, of Maury Island, adding later: “We’ve got a lot more coming.”
Senate Republicans, who are adjusting to life in the minority after several years of effectively wielding control of the chamber, are downplaying the Democratic victories as relatively small.
“A number of the policy bills they’re pushing out, I’m not certain they’ll have the impact that they might be celebrating,” said Republican floor leader Joe Fain, of Auburn.
And it remains to be seen what proposals can actually pass both chambers to land on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
House Democrats have a likewise slim 50-48 majority.
In recent years, some bills that passed the Senate and went over to the House — such as a sexual-assault protection order bill in 2016 and a prison-oversight bill last year — stalled at the last minute.
House Democrats have yet to bring most of the successful Senate bills to the floor.
And House Democratic leaders have spent the session saying that most bills this year will still need Republican support.
That will make gun legislation, new taxes and overturning the death penalty a tough sell.
And for Inslee and lawmakers of both parties pining for big changes to the tax system, key legislators in the budget-writing process have plenty of cold water to throw.
Neither House nor Senate Democratic budget writers are likely to include the governor’s proposed carbon tax in their proposed supplemental operating budgets expected to come later this month.
The supplemental budget is intended to tweak the two-year, $44.3 billion spending plan lawmakers passed last year
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island and chief Democratic Senate budget writer, said her priority is to write a supplemental budget with no new revenue and few new programs.
Her work, Rolfes said, is focused on “a lot of legitimate budget adjustments that need to be made.”
While several Senate proposals have drawn GOP votes, Republicans revolted last week in a late-night session over a union-backed bill.
Senate Bill 6199 would restructure the way some home health-care workers are contracted with by the state — and could result in thousands of workers paying dues to Service Employees International Union 775 (SEIU).
SEIU 775 over the years has given many hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and committee groups.
The bill, which was requested by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), has two GOP co-sponsors and the support of Democrats.
The proposal would transition tens of thousands of individual home health-care worker contracts to a private company. That private entity would eventually then negotiate a contract with SEIU 775.
DSHS and the bill’s supporters have said it is necessary to simplify a contracting process that over the years has become overly complex.
Many Republican senators proposed dozens of amendments and stalled the bill. But Democratic leaders pulled it up for a vote Saturday morning, and the bill passed.
In a news conference last week, Fain shared a 2014 Office of Financial Management memo showing SEIU 775 requesting that the state make such a change to the home health-care contracting process.
He added that Democrats’ way of approaching the issue — which would ultimately cost at least $11 million annually — is also problematic.
“I think bills like this call into question the legitimacy of literally everything we do here,” Fain said.
The McCleary question
Lost in this year’s vote flurry is the fact that lawmakers still don’t have consensus on how to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s long-festering K-12 school-funding order.
After years of being held in contempt over the court’s McCleary decision, lawmakers and Inslee last year finally approved a full K-12 education funding plan.
The plan uses a complicated scheme that raises state property-tax rates for all property owners in 2018, while lowering them for some in the years after.
The money raised allows the state to assume the costs of teacher and other school-worker salaries, which the justices said the state must pay to meet its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education.
In November, the court said the plan was sound but wouldn’t be implemented soon enough. The justices suggested lawmakers fix that by making a roughly $1 billion one-time addition to state schools funding.
Republican lawmakers have largely opposed the idea of adding that sum in the supplemental budget — and Democrats have been noncommital about how much they want to contribute.
Senate Bill 6362 would make various tweaks to Washington’s K-12 funding plan, adding about $105 million in school funding through 2021. But that money wouldn’t go toward implementing the plan more quickly as the justices suggested.
The bill, which lawmakers passed this week through the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is expected to go through more revisions.
Another proposal supported by lawmakers in both parties, Senate Bill 6525, would raise some state money to satisfy the court — but simultaneously lower some local district spending on schools.
Despite the court order, lawmakers remain reluctant to make major changes.
“I think we’ll take pieces of it this year and come back next year,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
Lawmakers in both parties have offered plenty of proposals to change Washington’s tax system — but there’s little indication they’ll get it done this year.
The property-tax increase Democrats and Republicans agreed upon last year is now a prime target in Olympia.
Democrats have grumbled about the plan — which raises taxes in many Puget Sound school districts — even as they agreed to it.
And since its passage last summer, Republicans who promoted the plan have called for tax relief as homeowners brace for a tax hike.
“We, of course, would like to see some property-tax relief in 2018,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the GOP budget writer who proposed last year’s property-tax plan.
Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes, has proposed a capital-gains tax that would raise new money in order to lower property taxes.
But even if the House could pass such a measure, the Democratic Senate appears to lack the votes to adopt it.
Likewise, Inslee’s carbon-tax proposalfaces steep hurdles, with legislative leaders cool to the idea of voting on it.
And Lytton, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said she is not interested in raising new revenue that doesn’t go back into tax relief.
Some Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, continue to press for the manufacturing-tax break lawmakers agreed to last year in a budget deal — before Inslee vetoed it.
Rolfes said there could be a “grand bargain” at some point on a manufacturing-tax break and property-tax relief.
That would be hard to accomplish by March 8, the last scheduled day of the session.
“I can’t see it in the next few weeks,” Rolfes said, “but I don’t rule it out.”