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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.”

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Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the state’s operating budget sometime tonight, averting a government shutdown by mere hours. Legislators, who are now in their third special session this year, are dealing with remaining legislation and preparing to really, finally leave Olympia.

The new budget includes no major tax increases. $1.3 billion in new funding is going to K-12 schools as required by the McCleary ruling, and state university students will see 15-20% tuition reductions as part of a provision insisted on by Senate Republicans.

Legislators are still working on some important issues, including the capital budget and what to do about the unaffordable I-1351 class size initiative. That last one may yet produce some drama. Senate Democrats are seeking a concession from Republicans, perhaps on high school assessments, in return for agreeing to suspend I-1351.

Biggest issue left: Transportation package
Looming largest over the Legislature at this stage is the much-discussed, yet-to-be-passed transportation package. It cleared the Senate last night on a bipartisan 39-9 vote. Supporters are working to line up votes in the House, which may vote on the package late tonight.

A key part of the argument to House Republicans: voting for the transportation package is the only way to stop the Inslee administration from implementing a low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) by executive order. Inslee announced this weekend that he’s willing to accept the “poison pill” proviso in the transportation package that would effectively prevent him from putting an LCFS in place.

That appeal to Republicans is important because, with narrow partisan control in the House and some Democrats planning to vote no, the only way the transportation package will clear the House is with bipartisan support.

Former gubernatorial candidate and state attorney general Rob McKenna made his own appeal to Republicans today, saying on his site:

There is so much in this package for conservatives to celebrate. The Senate Republicans insisted on the inclusion of key elements that will improve WSDOT and spend taxpayer dollars effectively. Passing the package would mean getting a big return from a small rise in the gas tax. Not passing it would mean the Inslee administration could still implement a low-carbon fuel standard that would raise your gas prices but not raise money for important transportation projects. The choice is obvious.

The transportation package remains the closest thing to a “jobs bill” in the Legislature this year. A failure tonight would be seen as a big blow to the business groups and labor unions that are strongly backing the package.

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Will Washington legislators pass a transportation package this year? Maybe, but right now key legislators aren’t talking about it. House Democrats say they need an operating budget accord before they’ll work on transportation.

Caucus leadership even told their transportation chair, Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island, to halt transportation talks until budget negotiators reach a deal. Some think the governor should call another special session, either immediately or later in the year, to pass a transportation package if it doesn’t happen during the current overtime session. In a press conference last week, Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t commit one way or the other to that idea.

Surprise move in Oregon
One big hiccup in transportation negotiations this year has been over a potential low-carbon fuels standard (LCFS). Gov. Inslee has made no secret that he wants to implement an LCFS by executive order. Senate Republicans aren’t LCFS fans. Their transportation package includes a provision that would move transit-related funding to highway projects if Inslee imposes an LCFS by executive order.

Inslee has looked to Oregon, one of the few states to pass an LCFS, in crafting his own policy. In a surprising development, though, Oregon legislators are considering dumping the LCFS program they renewed just a few months ago.

Oregon first passed an LCFS in 2009, but the law was set to expire this year. Oregon legislators faced a choice: pass it again or let it die. Over strenuous Republican objections, majority Democrats in Salem renewed Oregon’s LCFS program this spring.

Now, just months later, legislative Democrats and Oregon’s new governor, Kate Brown, are trying to secure Republican support for a transportation package. They have signaled that they’re willing to repeal the LCFS program to gain Republican votes. The new package would spend on other environmental projects that supporters say would reduce far more carbon than an LCFS. Environmental groups have tried to cast doubts on those claims.

Oregon’s Gov. Brown has shown willingness to compromise to pass a transportation package. The question remains: Will Gov. Inslee?

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Seattle is known for its leftist politics, and the city is ground zero for the $15 minimum wage movement. It’s not a shock, then, that the next topic du jour for Seattle activists is that old chestnut: rent control.

New York and San Francisco have America’s most notorious rent control systems, but the idea hasn’t spread very many places. Most cities recognize that government-mandated low rents are irrational, stifle investment and help lower supply of apartment units by discouraging new development.

Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna laid out a case recently that rent control “simply doesn’t work.” He points out that, if a groundswell of support for rent control builds in Seattle, city councilmembers couldn’t simply enact it. Rent control schemes are banned by state law, so the Legislature would have to change the law to allow cities to enact such systems.

About that groundswell
Turns out, despite all the headlines activists have managed to generate lately, Seattle voters don’t seem that interested in the idea of rent control.

Publicola highlighted an EMC Research poll that asked Seattle voters who they would be more likely to support: a candidate who supports “a variety of policies for affordable housing” such as developer fees or increasing the supply of units, or a candidate who supports rent control caps.

15% of those polled said they’d support the rent control candidate. 78% chose the other option.

Top issue?
That wasn’t the most interesting factoid from the poll, though. Respondents were asked what they think is “the most important problem facing the city today that the city needs to address”. The question didn’t give options to choose from; voters simply responded with the topic that was most important to them.

The most common answer, chosen by 40% of respondents, was transportation. Housing, the second most-common response, was well back at 17%. Only 2% specifically mentioned rent control as being important to them.

It just goes to show, activists can push an issue and garner headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to most voters. Candidates who can address real concerns – like the difficulty of getting around the city – have the edge with voters who want solutions, not ideology.

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Initiative 601, R.I.P.

June 16, 2015

RIP Spending Growth Limit

Nationally, Washington has a reputation as a liberal Left Coast state. That image has always been tripped up a little by a tax-skeptical populace that doesn’t fit neatly with the stereotype.

Initiatives and referenda, the legacy of the state’s early populists, have given Washington’s citizens plenty of opportunities to express that tax skepticism. Among other things, Washington voters in recent years have:

Spending limit dying a quiet death
That spending limit, passed as Initiative 601 in 1993, is facing an ignominious end. Both the House and Senate budgets assume I-601’s quiet repeal. Its supermajority requirements were struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2013, but the spending cap is still in place, overseen by the Expenditure Limit Committee.

Eliminating the spending limit is necessary, legislators might argue – if they were talking about it at all. Spending pressures – not least the state Supreme Court looking over the Legislature’s shoulder on education funding – mean the cap must be lifted, the thinking goes.

I-601’s spending cap was revised in 2005, when Christine Gregoire was governor and Democrats controlled both chambers, to allow a higher spending level. If the revised cap was left in place, state spending would be limited to 8.6% growth in the next budget.

State revenues are forecasted to grow by 9.2% in the next two years, and both chambers’ budgets spend all of it. House Democrats previously called for $1.5 billion in new taxes on top of that, but the House has yet to pass any tax increases.

Legislators are euthanizing I-601 quietly, but presumably initiative kingpin Tim Eyman is paying attention. Will Eyman run a “son of 601″ initiative to put the spending cap back in place? It’s proven a popular issue before.

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