On January 10, the 18 state legislators who represent Seattle districts will head back to Olympia for a grim session, sure to be filled with battles over how to fix Washington's enormous budget deficit and scrapping over which districts—in our case, which Seattle districts—are going to hang on to their increasingly small piece of the pie.
How will our lawmakers be defending Seattle?
A telling glimpse of what they are—and are not—willing to go to the mat for this year came at a public forum held on December 31 at a bar on Capitol Hill. Senator Adam Kline, who represents South Seattle's 37th District, said that despite Seattle mayor Mike McGinn's continued sounding of the alarm over certain language that the state legislature passed last session—specifically, language that puts Seattle property-tax payers on the hook for any downtown tunnel cost overruns—he's not concerned.
"It's clearly so unenforceable that it has not been an issue—except for Mayor McGinn, I believe, seizing on it to make it seem as if there is something there," said Kline. The state constitution says taxes must be applied evenly across the state, not just on one city.
In agreement with Kline's assessment: Representative Joe Fitzgibbon of West Seattle's 34th District, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Magnolia's 36th District, and Representative Reuven Carlyle, also of the 36th. In fact, several of the Seattle lawmakers at the forum seemed annoyed that Mayor McGinn keeps beating this drum. "The question is: If it's unenforceable, why bother fighting it?" Kline asked. "Unless you're really trying to fight the tunnel all over again, which he told us he wasn't going to do."
Several dozen Seattle voters at the forum seemed to feel otherwise, with many pressing the legislators on exactly how the cost-overrun language would be dealt with this year. After all, McGinn says that the state can, in effect, make Seattle pay by withholding state funds from the city.
Still, none of the lawmakers was willing to sponsor legislation to try to remove the language—except for Kohl-Welles, who said she was willing to put forward a repeal measure just to take away what she described as one of McGinn's delaying tactics.
"Mayor McGinn is seemingly trying to do everything he can to delay the project," Kohl-Welles said. "Tie it up every way possible. So I would be very supportive of legislation... I would sponsor, I would support getting rid of that cost-overrun language that we have."
However, a few days later, on January 3, Kohl-Welles told The Stranger that she'd modified her position since the forum. "Since then," said Kohl-Welles, "I've talked it over with Senator [Ed] Murray and support his intention to introduce legislation creating a type of independent review panel, and to wait for a bill on eliminating the Seattle-taxpayers language to come from the house (if it does)."
Which won't happen. One indication among many: Representative Fitzgibbon says he'll be more than happy to repeal the cost-overrun language—but only if the state senate acts first.
That leaves exactly zero Seattle lawmakers saying they'll fight for a cost-overrun-language repeal measure, and that amounts to an implicit repudiation of one of the mayor's top lobbying priorities. McGinn's office declined to respond to that repudiation, or to the open criticism by Kline and Kohl-Welles of his campaign against the cost-overrun language.
If they don't think that repealing the cost-overrun language is a top Seattle priority, what are Seattle's legislators actually gearing up to tackle this session? "Budget, budget, budget," said Senator Ed Murray of Seattle's 43rd District. The state is facing a nightmarish $4.6 billion budget shortfall, and Seattle's representatives want to do whatever they can to mitigate the coming cuts to the social safety net—cuts that will be felt all across the state, but most acutely in urban areas like Seattle. Representative Carlyle is going to be offering legislation to try to make is easier for the legislature to close tax loopholes (a way of dealing with the shortfall that's popular with Seattle legislators). Kline wants to push on getting Seattle authority to regulate guns in parks. And Kohl-Welles, for her part, is sponsoring a measure that would clarify the state law on medical marijuana so that users of medical cannabis, and those who run medical cannabis dispensaries, can have more protection against arrest and prosecution.
It's not everything the mayor wants. But, Seattle's legislators say, it's what the city needs most.