It's so bad down in Olympia we hardly know where to begin. But we might as well start with the fact that our state's lawmakers are still in contempt of the Washington State Supreme Court for failing to find the billions needed to properly fund basic education. What else? Well, there's also that August ruling from the state's high court that told Washington to stop violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill patients by allowing them to be tied to gurneys in hospital waiting areas for extended periods of time. Ending this practice, known as "boarding," will require big money from the legislature, too. And then there's the pricey transportation bill that lawmakers failed to pass last year and the year before, even as state bridges continue to decay and Seattle continues to desperately need more mass transit.
Notice a common theme? Bingo. Our state government, starved by the Great Recession and a backward, unfair tax structure, is now in serious need of more cash.
So with Democrats in control of the governor's mansion and the state house, and Republicans in control of the state senate, everyone's gonna come together and do their jobs and figure out how to make it rain this year, right?
Uh, no. On January 12, the first day of the new legislative session, the Republicans who now control the senate got right to passing a rule that requires a nearly impossible two-thirds senate majority for any new tax increases. (Yes, back in 2013 the state supreme court said this kind of two-thirds majority requirement is unconstitutional. No, senate Republicans don't seem to care.)
Now that Republicans have erected a huge—and possibly unconstitutional—legislative roadblock to new revenue as their first item of business, how will they find the dough we need to fix our schools, our roads, our crumbled social safety net, and our still-dirty Puget Sound? Good question.
The answer is that if senate Republicans keep this up, lawmakers likely won't find the money. With that in mind, here's a tour of five things Washingtonians need, but won't get, if senate Republicans continue down this path. (Plus the one thing—rhymes with pot—that Republicans just might allow us to have.)
A Good Transportation Package: Not Happening Without New Revenue
Everyone knows we need billions in funding for drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, bus riders, and light rail passengers—particularly in Seattle, the fastest-growing large city in the country. "Grappling with growth," as Scott Kubly, the director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, put it, is the city's biggest challenge. Sound Transit, meanwhile, is asking for state authority to put a $15 billion regional taxation measure on the 2016 ballot. If approved, it would fund light rail expansions to connect cities around King County. But where does the money and taxing authority have to come from? Senate Republicans, to begin with.
Democrats say they've agreed to have the senate Republicans take the lead on formulating this year's transportation package—one they hope will be just progressive enough to pick up Democratic votes in the senate and then pass in the house. In 2013, the last time a transportation bill even made it out of one chamber of the legislature, things kicked off in the house, where Democrats and some Republicans passed an $800 million transportation package and then sent it on a death march to the Republican-dominated senate, which promptly killed the thing.
So if Republicans were content to not bother funding necessary transportation improvements in the past, what's to say they won't do the same again this year? "I really don't see how they can afford to not bring [a transportation bill] forward," said Pramila Jayapal, who sits on the senate's transportation committee and was just elected to represent Seattle's 37th District. "They have huge constituencies that need a transportation package... They control the majority, so it is certainly up to them to show that they have some solutions, not just slogans." None of the Republicans on the senate's transportation committee responded to requests for comment, though.
Another freshman Democratic senator who sits on the committee, Cyrus Habib of the Eastside's 48th District, said he intends to fight hard for Sound Transit taxing authority and direct investments in roads, bikeways, and walkways. "Let's see if the senate majority is serious about moving a bill at all," he said. "I'm not confident. But I am hopeful."
Which sounds a lot like: We're probably still fucked, but who knows, maybe!
A Carbon Tax to Fund Schools: Not Happening if We Can't Have New Revenue
Fund your damn public schools. Or else. That's the ultimatum Washington State's highest court handed the legislature last year, holding all of our elected officials in collective contempt over failing to pay for the "basic" educations of Washington's kids.
So where could legislators get the money to make it happen? Governor Jay Inslee proposed a grand compromise in December: taxing the state's biggest polluters for the carbon they unleash and using the new revenue for schools. Creating a marketplace for polluters' carbon in Washington State would solve two problems at once, drastically reducing the state's greenhouse gas emissions while generating $380 million annually in new cash. A win-win for the future, right?
Despite being sold as a compromise, it's safe to say that lots of Republican lawmakers don't see Inslee's "Carbon Pollution Accountability Act" that way. "I do anticipate a lot of opposition, not only from the majority coalition, but probably from a variety of people around the state," state senator Linda Evans Parlette (R-Wenatchee), who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, said.
People around the state aside, it's really the senate Republicans who have the will and the power to destroy this idea. Which means they must have a better alternative, right? Wrong. "We're going to work very hard to make sure Governor Inslee keeps his campaign promise of not raising taxes," state senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale), chair of the senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee, told The Stranger. Hear an alternative proposal in that? We didn't, either.
Raising taxes, of course, is the whole damn point of a carbon tax. But conservatives say they're worried the tax would someday be shifted from big fossil fuel companies to Washingtonians paying at the pump. Inslee's office projects a 12-cent increase there, but Ericksen has said gas would cost as much as $4.50 a gallon.
"Basically, it's a tax on the people," Representative Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) said. "Are we doing this to feel good, or are we doing this to do something? I'm not much of a feel-good guy."
Puget Sound Cleanup: The Money's Gotta Come from Somewhere
Poor Puget Sound. It's getting sicker faster than anyone can heal it. Orca counts are down, salmon counts are down, and storm-water runoff is funneling a toxic soup of sidewalk dog poop and chemicals into the waterway. Pollution now threatens $20 billion worth of Sound-connected economic activity, and tribal fishing treaties. (That last threat could end in serious lawsuits.)
Since 2007, the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency tasked with cleaning up the Sound, has struggled to come up with the right anti-pollution to-do list. In 2011, the EPA actually took back more than $120,000 it had granted the agency, citing fraud concerns. The agency now has new leadership—Inslee appointed former Bellevue city manager assistant Sheida Sahandy—and new priorities. It's taking a 10 percent cut to its operating budget no matter what, but in Inslee's latest budget proposal, the partnership's hopes and dreams are pinned on a little more than $1 million to come up with ways to measure how well or poorly the cleanup is going. The governor's proposed budget has lots of other Sound-related line items, too: Salmon habitat grants, oil train safety, and loans to repair homeowners' septic tanks are just a few. All of them will cost serious money as well.
Sahandy says she anticipates a rough ride for Inslee's budget, but she's hopeful. Jeff Parsons, PSP's policy director, also stressed his optimism about bipartisanship in the upcoming session. (Maybe he hasn't met the people who run the senate yet?) And yes, maybe the partnership can sell Republicans on the government-efficiency argument conservatives so love. Something like: "Look! No more fraud! It's really efficient to not have any more fraud!" But legislators might also be cagey given the partnership's history. Some, like Representative Kretz, are reserving judgment: "It's hard to get excited about funding something that has been inefficient in the past," Kretz said. "I think they've cleaned up a lot of it, and they're more on track, but I need to look into it." Translation: Good luck.
A Better Mental Health Care System: Not Happening Without More Money
In July of 2013, 28-year-old Joel Reuter stood on the balcony of his Capitol Hill apartment, waving a gun at police and saying he was ready to fight off zombies. The eight-hour standoff ended when he fired a shot and police returned fire, killing him.
Seven months later, Reuter's parents held back tears in a house committee meeting as they told state lawmakers their son didn't have to die. Joel's mother, Nancy, described her son's "spiral" after he went off the medicine he took for bipolar disorder and their failed attempts to get the state to treat him. "It felt like no one was listening," she said.
Families like the Reuters are sometimes told their relative doesn't pose enough of an immediate threat to be committed for treatment, but by the time they do pose enough of a threat in the eyes of the system, it's too late. So the Reuters have called on lawmakers to pass a bill sponsored by Representative Eileen Cody (D-Seattle) that would allow families to appeal to a court when state-assigned "designated mental health professionals" decide someone isn't enough of a risk. But Republicans in the state senate refused to pass it last year in part because they were worried about its costs, according to Cody. ("Joel's Law," as it was called, was estimated to cost $15 million to start, and then $9 million a year after that.) This year, she'll bring it back, and—despite the urgency in stories like the Reuters'—we're sure to see spending-wary Republicans make the same arguments.
The one place conservatives may not be able to shirk responsibility is the ongoing crisis of boarding the mentally ill. The state supreme court ruled in August that the practice—which involves mentally ill people being warehoused in emergency rooms while they wait for space in psychiatric facilities—is illegal. The state has been using stopgap funding ever since to provide better care. The governor's proposed budget requests about $41 million of state funding for 205 new psychiatric beds across the state. Cody said she expects the legislature to spend "at least" that much.
"We have to fund this just as much as we need to be funding education," Cody said. "I think the stars are aligning and everyone realizes it." But, again, it takes more than aligned stars and a high-court ruling to make this happen. It takes cash.
A Capital Gains Tax to Fund All Kinds of Good Programs: Not if We Can't Have New Revenue
Might be nice right about now to have $1.4 billion flowing into the state coffers every two years. You know, for schools and bridges and transit and all that stuff that supreme court justices—and voters—tell us we need to have. A new tax on capital gains could deliver that kind of cash, funding all kinds of important programs while also going some distance toward righting an overall state tax system that House Finance Chair Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) calls "morally bankrupt." Carlyle is bringing the heavy rhetorical artillery because, at present, Washington has the most regressive tax system in the nation, thanks to our overreliance on a sales tax that causes the poor to pay way more in taxes, as a percentage of their income, than the wealthy. The capital gains tax being pushed this year by Inslee would only apply to the wealthy—that is, to individuals who earn more than $25,000 in a given year from stock sales and such—and, according to his office, would hit "only a tiny fraction of the state's taxpayers."
Sounds great, right? Except that with Republicans in the senate now requiring a two-thirds majority for any new taxes, this one's dead on arrival. So... maybe a bake sale to fund mental health care? "The Republicans feel rewarded politically from being the party of no," Carlyle said. "And they're very articulate about what they're against. It's just incredibly hard to get a handle on what they're for... At some point, they've got to show up to govern."
Better Pot Laws: The One Thing Republicans Might Let Us Have
Could pot be the thing that'll get Republicans to, as Carlyle put it, "show up to govern"?
We'll see, but there's certainly a pot-related problem out there for them to address. Washington's new super-structured recreational pot system has put the spotlight on our almost entirely unregulated medical pot market—a separate universe of cheaper, sometimes-legal marijuana, in which lawmakers worry some customers are shopping without a real medical need. If state leaders can get those shoppers into recreational stores, it could mean more tax revenue in this time of so many expensive problems. So it's no wonder everyone is clamoring to come up with a fix.
Two basic ideas are driving Olympia's conversation about what to do: add new regulations to the medical market, or fold the two markets into one.
Major legalization players, like the ACLU's Alison Holcomb and Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, have lined up behind a plan to merge the markets that's being pushed by Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle). Her bill would require all medical and recreational businesses to get the same licenses and follow the same rules. (Save for a few special rules for medical marijuana: Low-THC strains would be sold tax-free, and patients could apply for a Department of Health waiver to exempt them from taxes on all pot products.) Kohl-Welles's bill would also simplify the recreational pot tax structure and allow six-plant home grows for anyone 21 or older.
In the house, Democrat Sherry Appleton of Poulsbo is taking a different approach. She'd rather legitimize the medical dispensaries that currently exist while imposing some new rules, like keeping dispensaries 1,000 feet from schools and parks and banning products that appeal to kids. And then there's the conservative plan, proposed by Republican senator Ann Rivers, of La Center, and Democratic senator Brian Hatfield, of Raymond, who calls himself "a moderate" and "a libertarian" on pot. Their proposal includes a patient registry for medical marijuana users (which advocates have long fought against) and a ban on any smokable products in medical stores. There's a chance Republicans' new control of the senate could give this one momentum—a scary prospect.
But no matter what, some kind of pot-market-related bill is likely to come out of this legislative session, because the money in it's just too enticing. "I think I have the more straightforward and simple approach that will provide for patient protections, patient options, and public safety," Kohl-Welles says. "The wild card in all this is I'm in the minority. How will the politics play out? I don't know."