(Images: wastateleg.org and housedemocrats.wa.gov)
The Legislature’s 2015 session kicks off Monday with two Capitol Hill residents heading back to Olympia to represent the 43rd District. Sen. Jaime Pedersen and Rep. Brady Walkinshaw are entering the 105-day session after running unopposed in last year’s election. House Speaker Frank Chopp will continue his reign over the House after a decisive win against Jess Spear in November.
Revenue is shaping up to be the major theme of this year’s 105-day session. As the state faces massive spending needs in education and transportation, battles over new revenue streams are likely to take up most of the oxygen in the State Capitol, Pedersen told CHS.
A preview of the tax debate was heard during last week’s annual Associated Press legislative forum, where Governor Jay Inslee advocated for Washington to join most other states in implementing a capital gains tax. Pedersen and Walkinshaw said they both strongly support the tax, which would generate an estimated $800 million and affect about 1% of Washington residents. But with a Republican-controlled Senate, Pedersen wasn’t optimistic about the plan’s chances of passing. “It’s not clear what additional revenue, if any, we can get,” he said.
So where would all that new revenue hypothetically go?
- Transportation: The Legislature hasn’t passed a comprehensive transportation package since 2005. Last year, local officials decided to start looking closer to home to fund major transit projects. In November, Seattle voters approved Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to locally fund Metro bus services through a sales tax increase and vehicle license fee. A couple weeks later, Sound Transit asked the Legislature for the ability to raise its taxes to fund work on a ballot measure to expand light rail in the region.The $15 billion Sound Transit 3 initiative would fund work to expand light rail into Ballard and possibly West Seattle, eventually adding more destinations accessible from the upcoming Capitol Hill Station. “Now that we’re hooked into the spine of the system, all of those improvements make our station more useful,” Pedersen said. “When that goes live, it becomes a complete game changer.” The Sound Transit board is hoping to have the initiative on the ballot in 2016. Board members recently offered a rough outline of what the new taxes may look like:
— A Property tax increase equating to an annual $75 for a $300,000 house.
— A Sales tax of up to an additional 0.5 percent
— A Motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) reauthorization of up to 0.8 percent of vehicle value ($80 annually on a $10,000 vehicle).Allowing the agency to raise taxes above its current limits could be an easier pill to swallow for Olympia’s Republicans, though the 43rd’s delegation is still pushing for a comprehensive transportation package this year.
Pedersen said he was also committed to finding funding to finish the SR-520 west approach bridge, including plans for a shortened land bridge to cross over a Montlake-side portion of the highway.
- Education: Washington state has yet to comply with the state Supreme Court’s demand to put more money into K-12 public schools. To keep in line with the court’s orders, Inslee’s 2013-2015 budget includes a $2.3 billion education plan that is only partially funded. As the 43rd District prepares to adda new middle school in Meany and considers a new high school, Pedersen has also been working on legislation to increase Seattle’s share of state matching funds to build those new schools. In rural districts, state funds can cover most of the cost of school construction, whereas the state contributed only a fraction of the cost to remodel the Ingram High School. “We are in the midst of a really, really dramatic boom in enrollment in the schools,” Pedersen said. “We have a lot of schools that are significantly overcrowded.”
- I-502: While marijuana doesn’t loom as large as the state’s revenue issues, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem eager to take action on refining I-502. Last week, City Attorney Pete Holmes called on the Legislature to close the gaps in the largely unregulated medical marijuana industry and bring it under the prevue of the state recreational marijuana law. Pedersen was optimistic that the state could harmonize the two systems this year without shutting down most dispensaries. “If we want to get the benefit of legalization that we did, it’s important that we don’t leave a giant unregulated loophole,” he said.
- Mental health: Hopefully, Joel’s Law won’t have to wait nearly as long as movement on transportation. A Capitol Hill-tied health issue facing lawmakers this year will be Joel’s Law. The bill, named after Joel Reuter who was killed in a 2013 police standoff on Capitol Hill, strengthens involuntary commitment guidelines for people suffering from mental illnesses. If a county decided not to involuntarily commit someone, family members of that individual could directly appeal the decision under the new law. The bill was delayed in the Senate last year and Walkinshaw said he’s working with the Reuter family to get it passed this session.
- Housing: During last year’s election, Chopp vowed to bolster the state’s housing trust fund in order to build more affordable housing on and around Capitol Hill. While Chopp’s 2014 opponent Jess Spear tried to force the issue of rent control, there’s no indication it will get any traction this session. Walkinshaw will continue his efforts to make apartment hunting cheaper. His bill would would ensure renters only pay an application fee once by requiring landlords to accept a submitted background screening as long as it was prepared within 30 days of the application date. Landlords may choose to do their own background screening, but if one is already provided to them they cannot pass that fee onto prospective tenants.Walkinshaw is also pushing to make funds available to Capitol Hill Housing to build senior housing in the development surrounding the new Capitol Hill Station. CHH was one of four finalists to bid for the project. Sound Transit is expect announce the project developers this month.
This year, Pedersen’s Senate committee assignments include ranking member of Law and Justice, Financial Institutions & Insurance, and Transportation. Walkinshaw will sit on the House’s Early Learning & Human Services, Appropriations, and Judiciary committees. CHS will be following their efforts as bills get introduced in the coming weeks.