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After All the Fuss and Bother, an Unremarkable Session Comes to an End

As session ends just before midnight Thursday, Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson offers a hug to Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, who is retiring.

As session ends just before midnight Thursday, Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson offers a hug to Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, who is retiring.

OLYMPIA, March 14.—You can say the 2014 legislative session started with low expectations, and it lived right up to them. Washington lawmakers ended their 60-day session just before midnight Thursday after passing a do-no-harm budget and a handful of policy bills of mostly modest import. As two months of caterwauling, fingerpointing and partisan debate finally came to an end, they could point to one big achievement: They managed to wrap it all up on schedule, with seven minutes to spare.

Then they went home. The parking lot cleared out fast. Unless you counted those who stuck around for the raucous party on the second floor of the John Cherberg Building, not a soul seemed interested in remaining a moment longer.

Gavels fell at 11:53 p.m. in the House and Senate to end the session – a short one, as mandated by the constitution in an even-numbered year. The final hours of the session wrapped up the loose ends in a way that seemed to tell the story of 2014. Lawmakers choked on medical marijuana. An oil-transport bill blew up. The Washington Education Association vetoed a teacher-evaluation bill – an action that will have dramatic repercussions for school districts across the state.

Those might be added to session’s biggest fizzle – the failure to strike a deal on a gas-tax increase for transportation. It was a session that appeared to operate without a rudder, with no clear goal except to establish talking points for the November elections and to set the stage for what is shaping up as a truly grueling session in 2015. “The status quo was maintained to the highest quarter,” said state Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax.

Typical bill: Measure clarifies the definition of phlebotomy.

Typical bill: Measure clarifies the definition of phlebotomy.

There were a handful of accomplishments — the passage of the Real Hope Act, a bill that provides college financial aid to the children of illegal immigrants. Another bill increased the number of credits required for high school graduation from 20 to 24. But such measures were the exception to the rule; most others that made it through were unremarkable — like a bill clarifying the definition of phlebotomy that bounced back and forth between chambers for amendment several times on closing night. The single biggest problem facing lawmakers – the Supreme Court’s order to beef up spending on K-12 education by $3 billion or more – was kicked ahead to next year’s session. And when it was all over, lawmakers said they couldn’t wait to get the heck out of town – leaving reporters with a big problem.

How do you sum up a session where nothing much really happened? Where inaction was the order of the year, and most of the debates that made headlines concerned proposals that were doomed from the start? Where lawmakers say the biggest accomplishment of their budget bill was that it didn’t make things any worse? And where they say one of the most important things they did this year was to adjourn?

A Government Divided

Inslee blames it all on the Senate Majority Coalition at his early-Friday-morning news conference.

Inslee blames it all on the Senate Majority Coalition at his early-Friday-morning news conference.

The easy part is explaining why it happened. Part of it is that there was no crisis this year forcing lawmakers to do much of anything. For the first time since recession hit in 2009, lawmakers didn’t have to do any slashing and cutting. A recovering economy, and all the trimming and readjustments they made following the spending binge of a decade ago, finally brought things back into balance. Another big factor was the ascendancy of fiscal conservatives in the state Senate, in the form of a bipartisan-but-largely-Republican Majority Coalition determined to block anything that would knock things off-kilter anew.

The Majority Coalition, now in its second year of control, had 26 members to the 23 in the Senate Democratic Caucus. For the most part it held together, though on a few bills its resolve appeared to weaken. Meanwhile the House remained under the firm control of Democrats, 55 to the Republicans’ 43. What it meant was that no bill that leaned too far in either direction was going to make it through. “This is divided government and we probably should not be shocked that when you have divided government that we may not have as many bills passed,” said Gov. Jay Inslee at a post-session news conference in the wee hours of Friday morning.

Welcome to the team: Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

And the third factor? Democrat Inslee himself. He excoriated the Senate Majority Coalition at the traditional post-session news conference, blaming it for the failure to pass a transportation package, and he tiptoed around the fact that his fellow Democrats were the ones who spiked the teacher-evaluation measure at the behest of the state teachers’ union. “If excuses were money, the Majority Coalition would all be millionaires,” Inslee declared.

By clearly taking sides, and by abandoning the governor’s traditional role — an arbiter who brings factions together — the former congressman demonstrates his lack of leadership, said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “He has brought D.C.-style politics to Washington,” he said.

Doomed From Start

House and Senate budget negotiators sign final agreement Thursday afternoon.

House and Senate budget negotiators sign final agreement Thursday afternoon.

Some might argue the session’s lack of productivity isn’t such a bad thing – taxpayers can sleep a little more soundly because of it. But with so little that actually needed to be done, it seemed a rather higher percentage than usual of the Legislature’s energy was expended on proposals that never stood a chance in the first place. The most controversial bills were dead the moment they were proposed. In the House, for instance, a proposal to dramatically increase the state minimum wage, already the highest in the country, got oodles of attention but never even made it to the floor. Democrats were loath to vote for a bill that was destined for certain failure in the Senate and whose only likely result would have been to give Republicans campaign fodder in the fall. Likewise, the Senate didn’t bother voting on a bill that would have preempted the ability of cities and counties to raise minimum wages on their own, or impose other workplace rules. That bill was just as certain to die in the House, and might have just as easily been used against swing-district Republicans who voted in its favor.

Other bills destined for certain death actually did make it through one chamber or the other – a mandatory paid sick-leave bill in the House, a workers’ compensation reform bill in the Senate – perhaps because there was less downside for political campaigns. Best example came with budget proposals that emerged on the Democratic side. Both the governor and the House Democrats proposed that business tax exemptions be eliminated in order to pay for teacher pay raises.

Inslee’s staff never got around to drafting a bill, and when the House made its budget proposal, it placed those items in a separate measure – a signal that those elements would be quickly jettisoned when the clock ran out on the session. And that’s just what happened. When the ultimate budget agreement was released on the final day of the session, those items were nowhere to be found. Asked why House Democrats weren’t interested in digging in their heels and fighting for months on end, House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina explained, “In a budget process there are a couple of kinds of fights you can have. You can have fights that don’t ever end or you can have fights that come to a closure with an agreement. And this is one of those.”

Budget a Teeny Bright Spot

State Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam.

State Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam.

The budget bill might actually be counted as one of the successes of the session. It really didn’t do much – all told, it would pay for about half of a state office building. But it didn’t raise taxes, an important point for Republicans – and it didn’t enact or extend any tax breaks, an important point for Democrats. Down went a Democratic proposal for a new tax on e-cigarettes. Down went a proposal from Republicans to reauthorize a tax credit for high-tech research and development. The final budget deal was a skimpy affair that basically reallocated $140 million and spent $15 million more. Lawmakers did the heavy lifting last year when they wrote a $33.6 billion spending plan for 2013-15.

For all the election-year squabbling, it was one of the few measures of any controversy that made it through – because both parties agreed it actually needed to pass. Indeed, the budget was a genuinely bipartisan affair in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans have been collaborating on the budget since 2011. The final bill reflected ideas from both sides, said state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam. “At least it doesn’t put us in a position where we are going to be starting out with a big negative next year.”

With a total 133 House and Senate members voting in favor and just 14 voting no, it was given the most bipartisan sendoff in the memory of anyone at the statehouse.

Big Policy Failures

House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.

House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.

Everything else this year was seen through the lens of the upcoming election, said House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish. “You know, one of the worst things about short sessions to me is that they are more political than anything else,” he said. “There is posturing and there is blustering, and you have all these bills to distract you from the real issues that you should be focused on.”

There were a few issues of true import, and the fact that lawmakers couldn’t find a way to agree bodes ill for the far more difficult budget questions they will have to deal with next session.  The failure with the most immediate impact was the demise of the teacher-evaluation measure. House Democrats took the side of the Washington Education Association, refusing to pass a bill that would have required standardized student test scores to be used in teacher evaluations – something many districts do already. Because the House refused to take a vote, the state’s school districts are likely to lose the ability to spend roughly $40 million in federal funds now earmarked for educational programs. It was a matter of principle, said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “In the end, you have to do the right thing, regardless of the threats from the federal government,” he said.

The right thing? Steve Litzow, chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee, notes that the money is used to provide programs for 300,000 of the state’s most vulnerable students — minorities, at-risk youth. “It is unbelievable, truly, that a special-interest group, the teachers’ union, would drive policy for the Democrats.”

Likewise, lawmakers were unable to compromise on a bill reflecting heightened state concern over hazardous shipments of oil-by-rail. A measure that aimed to create a licensed and regulated system for the sale of medical marijuana fell apart amid a larger dispute over the distribution of marijuana taxes — that risks the possibility of a federal crackdown on the medical-marijuana trade. And as the long-running effort to pass a gas-tax increase foundered in the final days, Democrats and Republicans each blamed the other for an unwillingness to negotiate. Details are lengthy and obscure, but the fact is that no talks were convened until midway through the session, when the Senate Majority Coalition attempted a jumpstart. They reserved a room and dared the Ds to show up.

As lawmakers stream out of the building, a legislative choir sings 'America the Beautiful.'

‘America the Beautiful’: As lawmakers stream out of the building, legislative choir bursts into song.

Nevertheless, at his early-morning  news conference, Inslee pointed the finger at the Senate Majority Coalition – and beyond, to the November election. “You can’t fix your roads with excuses. So we are going to hope that there is an epiphany that occurs. If it doesn’t we will be here in January, and we will see who is here.”

Ah, yes – reelection. The next big task ahead of the Legislature. As the midnight gavel approached Thursday, state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-Wenatchee kept his eye on the clock. “I said from Day One that people were ready to go, and now they’re even more ready to go. Sixty days later, nothing has changed.”

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