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For all the talk about bold proposals in Olympia this year, legislators didn’t pass any new general taxes or initiate big programs. Democrats have been happy to chalk that up to Republican control of the state Senate (and certainly that’s a big factor), but on many of the most controversial bills, it was never clear the 51 House Democrats could muster 50 votes for passage.

The House, run by Speaker Frank Chopp, proposed a budget with $1.5 billion in new taxes, but never actually voted to pass those new taxes. Under their proposal, the $1.5 billion was supposed to come from a tax on capital gains income and by making permanent a temporary B&O surcharge that expired in 2013.

House Democrats didn’t vote on either of those ideas. Nor did they take up Gov. Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal.

Strange messaging
Oddly enough, Democrats seemed quick to embrace the message that they were just trying to avoid exposing members to an unpopular vote, since Senate Republicans were unlikely to approve these taxes anyway. It’s odd because most of the time, politicians try to avoid looking like they’re engaging in feckless political maneuvering instead of standing on principle.

The message was no doubt preferable, though, to admitting House Democrats didn’t have the votes to pass the new taxes that their base supports.

It’s clear that with narrow partisan advantage, Speaker Chopp is operating in a very different environment from his post-2006 high water mark. If Republican Teri Hickel defeats appointed Rep. Carol Gregory in this fall’s 30th District special election, Chopp’s caucus will be down to a 50-48 advantage. He’d need an awful lot of caucus unity to pass anything on the liberal wishlist in 2016.

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When Gov. Jay Inslee signed the new state transportation package into law last week, most assumed it meant an end to the controversy over a governor-imposed low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS). The package includes a “poison pill” insisted on by Senate Republicans that if Inslee signs an executive order on LCFS, certain transit and multi-modal transportation funding will be transferred to highway projects.

Most thought the poison pill meant the end of Inslee’s ambition to sidestep the Legislature and put an LCFS in place on his own. Now, the governor’s spokesman is putting that assumption in doubt.

Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times broke the story on Saturday:

Despite the poison-pill regulation, Inslee’s office has signaled he is still considering moving ahead on a low-carbon fuel standard. While that would trigger a shift in transit money, Inslee and his allies could gamble on a fight to restore the funding in a subsequent legislative session.

Publicola reported Monday that Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor is “meeting with stakeholders” to discuss putting an LCFS in place despite opposition and the poison pill. That would imperil the spending covered by the poison pill provision, but Inslee could gamble that the Legislature next year will add new funding for the cut programs.

Move would be a risk
It’s unclear, though, what motivation legislative Republicans would have to restore the funding. Critics, including many legislative Republicans, believe an LCFS would raise the price of gas without providing any appreciable environmental benefit.

More to the point, Inslee putting an LCFS in place after agreeing to the poison pill provision could severely damage any comity between Inslee and legislative Republicans. They pursued the provision as an insurance measure against an executive order, one many Republicans needed to feel comfortable voting yes on the transportation package.

Allies are nervous

The idea that Inslee might sign an LCFS order anyway and invoke the poison pill provision is making some allies nervous. Saying the transportation package included “historic investments” in “safe streets, new sidewalks and bike pathways,” the policy director of Washington Bikes told Publicola, “Now those investments are in jeopardy because of potential Governor action on a low carbon fuel standard.”

The Cascade Bicycle Club, a major presence in Seattle politics, told its members in an e-mail Tuesday, “While we applaud the governor’s commitment to combating climate change, it should not come at the cost of all of the funding for bicycling he and the legislature just approved.”

If Inslee backs off his LCFS threat, a ballot initiative remains a possibility for supporters.

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After more than two years of negotiations, the Democrat-led House and Republican-led Senate reached agreement on a new transportation package this month. Business and labor leaders strongly backed the package, which will eventually raise gas taxes by 11.9 cents a gallon.

Like all state transportation packages, the projects are spread around to attract more legislative votes. Most agree, though, that the projects funded will help the economy and shorten commutes. They include:

  • Finishing the North Spokane Corridor to I-90
  • Easing traffic backups at Joint Base Lewis-McChord
  • Connecting the Port of Tacoma to SR 167
  • Improving I-405
  • Finishing the 520 bridge project on the Seattle side

Package prevents exec. order on LCFS
One of the most contentious parts of the package for House Democrats was the “poison pill” insisted on by Senate Republicans that prevents Gov. Jay Inslee from instituting a low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) by executive order. Inslee made no secret that he wanted an LCFS. Opponents to the idea say LCFS programs are environmentally ineffective and raise gas prices with little to show in benefits.

While the provision prevents singular action by Inslee, the Legislature could still pass an LCFS, though in its current makeup that is a remote possibility. But in a state with direct democracy via initiatives, the voters can pass any law themselves, same as the Legislature.

Will supporters try an initiative?
That has some wondering if supporters will try to place an LCFS initiative on the ballot. Already, an environmental group is trying to place a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the ballot next year. In the past, environmental initiatives have done well on the ballot, including the anti-nuclear waste I-297 (which was thrown out by the courts) in 2004 and 2006’s renewable energy initiative, I-937.

Of course, those initiatives weren’t perceived to have a direct, immediate cost to consumers. Opponents of an LCFS would be sure Washington voters knew an LCFS program would cost them money. That factor could have LCFS supporters wondering if a ballot initiative is such a good idea.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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When Senate Democrats didn’t go along with Olympia’s go-home budget plan last week and refused to provide the necessary votes to suspend Initiative 1351, they left a $2 billion hole in the state budget – and ticked off a lot of fellow legislators who expected session to finally be over by now.

They also left a lot of people wondering: What is their endgame?

Not a top-down decision, leadership insists
At a press conference Monday, Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) and deputy leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) emphasized that their caucus’s refusal to help supply the 2/3 vote necessary to suspend I-1351 wasn’t a leadership decision. There simply wasn’t enough support among Senate Democrats to take the vote without some other victory to show for it, they said.

“This wasn’t some caucus strategy,” Sen. Billig stressed.

And despite the budget problems their move created and the swift, negative reaction from newspapers around the state, they say they’re in no particular hurry to clear up the unbalanced budget problem.

“This is a problem, this is not a crisis. Government did not shut down,” Sen. Nelson said Monday. Billig and Nelson both said that I-1351 can be dealt with, if need be, “in the supplemental,” meaning in the regular 2016 session next January.

In the press conference, Nelson delivered a slam on Sen. Jim Hargrove, one of the few Democratic senators who voted aye on I-1351’s suspension. The Peninsula Democrat, one of his caucus’s budget negotiators, pointed in a floor speech before the suspension vote that I-1351 was never on Senate Democrats’ priority sheet for negotiations.

“He was tired, he was worn out, he’s been here six months. It was not the best of moments on the floor for our ranking member,” Nelson said of Hargrove.

Nelson and Billig want changes to the I-1351 suspension bill, including trimming the suspension to two years from four. The House would need to concur with those changes, but House budget writer Ross Hunter (D-Medina) knocked down that idea. “That thing is done,” Hunter said.

Part of intentional strategy?
Nelson and Billig have strived to present the situation as one not of their choosing. The stalemate is the result of the late hour of the vote, of their members’ preferences, of not being consulted by majority Republicans.

Strategic or not, it’s still true that the Senate Democrats’ move aligns nicely with the agenda of the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state teachers union, which sponsored I-1351.

The WEA knew what it was doing when it wrote the initiative’s text. For one thing, I-1351 included no new tax to pay for itself, making it more attractive to voters. The union had learned its lesson on that before. Its class size initiative in 2000, with no new tax, passed with a 72% yes vote. Its 2004 initiative, which included a one-cent sales tax hike, lost 40-60.

The initiative’s text also says that the student-teacher ratios the law requires are part of the state definition of “basic education”. That’s a critical point. Lawmakers are under court order in the McCleary case to fully fund basic education.

The court has also indicated that once something is considered part of “basic education,” legislators cannot remove it from the definition for purely economic reasons. There must be an educational basis for doing so.

That is the ace Senate Democrats hold in their back pocket, a rare chance for a minority party to make a power play. They look willing to take the heat for seeming to renege on Olympia’s budget compromise because it’s their only leverage at the moment to get what they want.

If they don’t get it, they would no doubt be happy to leave I-1351 in place with no funding, allow its definition of basic education to go into law, and perhaps set up Senate Republicans to vote for tax increases next year to pay for it all. That would be just fine with Senate Democrats and the WEA.

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More forgiving types might blame it on the late hour, or the accumulated stress of a long session. But when Senate Democrats scuttled a necessary vote to implement the state budget early this morning, many were left wondering: Are they a minority party with no interest in actually governing?

The vote was over suspending for four years I-1351, the class size initiative passed by voters last fall. The initiative is viewed as unaffordable and not the best use of education funds by most in Olympia. Suspending it requires a 2/3 vote in each chamber. At around 6:00 this morning, the vote failed on a 27-17 vote, with five senators excused. The measure needed 33 votes to pass.

Agreed by all caucuses previously
Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, joined the other caucuses just before midnight for a celebratory photograph as Gov. Jay Inslee signed the long-negotiated state operating budget. After sunrise, that caucus had blown what Senate Republican budget writer Andy Hill called “a $2 billion hole” in the state budget by balking on suspending I-1351. “Without this, we are out of balance” on the budget, Hill said.

The move surprised many because previously, the need to suspend I-1351 was taken as a given. None of the proposed budgets funded the initiative, and the final operating budget (which passed 38-10 in the Senate) didn’t fund the initiatives’ costs. The I-1351 suspension was no problem in the House; it passed on an easy 72-26 vote, with 39 Democrats voting aye.

Strong reactions to vote
Sen. Jim Hargrove, one of a handful of Democrats who joined with Republicans to suspend the initiative, admonished his fellow Democrats on the floor. “You’re going to be playing Russian Roulette with the social safety net next session,” Hargrove warned.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler simply called it “extortion.”

Senate Democrats signaled that they may be willing to suspend I-1351 if Republicans help pass a repeal of the state’s biology test requirement for high school graduation.

After the vote debacle, the Senate adjourned until Friday – time for negotiations but also time for senators to cool off and get some sleep. Senator Michael Baumgartner (R-6) said the Legislature should have wrapped up its work by now. “It’s disappointing,” he told KIRO Radio. “We could have brought the entire legislative session to a close last night if people would have stuck by their word and kept their agreement.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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