2018 Legislature: The “don’t expect too much” session

Gov. Jay Inslee already rolled out his supplemental budget proposal and laid out his legislative priorities for 2018. He wants a carbon tax, and he wants a quick ramp-up of teacher salaries.

Legislative leaders…well, they’re not really leaping to embrace Inslee’s agenda.

I’m not talking about Republican legislative leaders; there would be nothing surprising about that. With Democrats now narrowly leading in both chambers, they’re the ones steering the ship in Olympia. And they’re the ones going out of their way to cast doubts, worry about vote counts, and remind people that it’s a short 60-day session coming up.

The overall message: Let’s lower expectations here, people. Inslee’s 2018 agenda isn’t their 2018 agenda.

Carbon tax, capital gains tax look like 2018 no-goes
Inslee may want a carbon tax, but Democratic legislative leaders – whether it’s a matter of policy, timing, or whip counts – don’t sound so sure. Speaker Frank Chop said at the Associated Press legislative preview that the chances of passing a carbon tax in 2018 are “not the greatest, shall we say.”

New Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson talked up a carbon tax but demurred on saying one could pass the Senate. “We’ll be taking a look at the carbon [tax] and certainly talking about capital gains. In a 60 day session, I’m not sure we’re going to move forward on either,” she said.

Nelson also indicated that some Senate Democrats are wary of capital gains income taxes because of their volatility, and said on the Seattle Times political podcast she doesn’t have 25 votes in her caucus to pass one. As to a regular state income tax, Nelson said she supports one but that “at this point in time the voters were very clear that they were not accepting a statewide income tax, and it wasn’t that long ago that that went down,” referring to I-1098 being soundly defeated by voters in 2010.

Teacher salaries a matter of timing
The biggest new spending item in Inslee’s supplemental budget proposal is almost $1 billion for teacher salary increases this year instead of next year. He proposes to pay for it with reserve funds, then backfill the reserves with a carbon tax.

The proposal is tied to the McCleary decision. Lawmakers have debated how necessary it is to move up the salary bumps to satisfy the state Supreme Court. Some Republicans have felt free to say the Legislature should stick to its plan and, essentially, run out the clock on the court’s objections.

What’s more surprising is that some Democrats are willing to say that moving the salary bump up to this year may not be necessary. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan agreed with Senate Republican budget lead John Braun that hastening the $1 billion raise to this year would be problematic. Sullivan went on to say the focus should be more on what’s best for students and not on the court.

Even the Senate Democrats’ budget chair Christine Rolfes, who is generally supporting of moving the salary increase up, cast doubt on the wisdom of giving school districts the money ahead of schedule. She also noted that Inslee’s proposal to use reserve funds would require 60% majorities in both chambers, which makes it unlikely.

For those of us who want to see the Legislature adjourn on time this year, all of this realism from legislative leaders is reason for optimism. Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center tweeted that he heard a “realistic outlook from lawmakers on what is possible in short session,” raising the odds that they’ll avoid overtime sessions.

As for the governor’s agenda, he was left to tout that “you did not hear absolute noes” on his carbon tax proposal. After his own party’s legislative leaders poured cold water on his agenda, I guess that’s what passes for optimism.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.