By Diana Carlen
The Washington State Legislature convened for the 2018 regular session on Monday, Jan. 8. In even calendar years, regular legislative sessions are scheduled for 60 days and are referred to as “short” sessions because the Legislature does not need to adopt the state operating budget, which occurs in odd-numbered years. During short sessions, the Legislature may adopt supplemental budgets (operating, capital and transportation).
Unlike recent legislative sessions, this session is expected to last only 60 days, and a special session or overtime is not likely. The economy is stable, and the state is not facing budget shortfalls. Furthermore, this is an election year, and legislators will want to get their work done on time so they can begin campaigning for the 2018 elections. State elected officials cannot raise campaign funds until after session adjournment.
For the first time since 2013, Democrats have one-party control of the capitol. The Senate and House majorities are thin, however, making it unlikely that the Legislature will pass sweeping policy reforms without bipartisan support. After the November election, the Senate Democrats picked up a seat flipping Senate control to the Democrats by a narrow margin of 25-24. The Democrats control the House by a margin of 50-48.
In short sessions, legislative deadlines are condensed. The first legislative deadline was Feb. 2, when all policy bills had to make it out of their policy committees.
The Legislature adjourned last July without passing a capital budget. While a final capital budget providing more than $4 billion for constructions projects across the state had been agreed to by negotiators, the Senate, controlled by Republicans at the time, maintained its long-standing position that a capital budget would not be passed until Hirst legislation was signed by Gov. Inslee. The big news of this session, as of the end of January, is that the Legislature and the Governor finally reached agreement on the Hirst issue. Once the impasse over Hirst was over, it resulted in swift passage of both a Hirst fix and the 2017-2019 capital budget. Both pieces of legislation are discussed in more detail below.
Earlier in January, the governor announced details of a new carbon tax proposal. Inslee had previously said he would be would be unveiling a carbon pricing plan during his supplemental budget announcement in December, but had yet to offer any specifics before his legislation (SB 6203) was introduced.
SB 6203 is sponsored by Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), the chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee. The legislation would impose a $20 tax per ton of carbon dioxide on fossil fuels, including those that generate electricity. The tax would increase by 3.5 percent plus inflation annually. The governor’s office estimates it will raise $1.5 billion in its first two years and approximately $3.3 billion over the course of four years. The bill lays out specific revenue allocations for money raised by the tax. Fifty percent of the revenue would go toward investing and incentivizing Washington’s transition to a clean energy economy. Thirty-five percent would go toward a “water and natural resources resiliency account,” which would include updates to flood and storm water management infrastructure and improving forest health practices. The final 15 percent would go toward supporting vulnerable, low-income communities that may be immediately impacted by the taxation of carbon. SB 6203 had it’s first public hearing on Jan. 16. As of now, it has not passed out of committee.
Legislature passes Hirst fix
On Jan. 18, the House and Senate passed a bipartisan fix to the Washington State Supreme Court Hirst decision. ESSB 6091 passed out of the Senate by a vote of 35-14 and out of the House by a vote of 66-30. The Governor signed the bill the next day.
The bill provides relief for property owners by allowing development to resume that had been stalled due to uncertainty over the ability to rely on permit-exempt wells in rural areas. It allows for counties to once again rely on Ecology to issue building permits for lands with permit-exempt wells, but reduces the amount of water those wells can draw in certain areas of the state. It establishes a fee of $500 for each new permit-exempt withdrawal and provides $300 million over 15 years for projects to improve stream flows.
Legislature passes capital budget for 2017-2019 biennium
Also on Jan. 18, the Legislature passed a capital budget authorizing around $4.2 billion in new construction projects for the 2017-2019 biennium. The great news is that the Plant Science Building and the Animal Disease Diagnostic Building were both funded at Washington State University. Specifically, $52 million to build the Plant Science Building on the Pullman campus was provided. In addition, $23 million was appropriated to construct the first third of the Animal Disease Diagnostic. The capital budget contained an emergency clause meaning it was effective immediately upon the governor’s signature Friday, Jan. 19.