Washington lawmakers start the 2013 legislative session today facing an estimated $900 million budget deficit and a balancing act between cutting spending and prioritizing services.
The first week of the session will be slower than those following, said freshman Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, but the great tension in Olympia this session will be addressing the state’s mounting budget deficit and education obligations.
“Everybody up here is talking about McCleary,” he said, referring to the 2012 Washington State Supreme Court decision that the state inadequately supports K-12 public education and needs to do more.
Lawmakers from both parties are looking for about $1 billion for K-12 education to comply with the court’s ruling. Add to that the state’s plans to create a health care exchange and the incoming governor’s pledge to not create any new taxes and it’s a challenging budget environment, Manweller said.
Manweller said there might be some progress toward meeting the requirements set by the court to adequately fund K-12 education this session, but it will come in increments. Health care reform might be a tougher sell, he said.
“We’ve agreed to set up an exchange, but we haven’t come up with what that exchange will look like,” he said. “I think, in some way, Washington state leaped before it looked.”
Part of the uncertainty over the future of health care in the state government comes from uncertainty from the federal government, Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said.
Washington is a little bit ahead of the curve for meeting requirements set by the Affordable Care Act thanks to the state’s progress on adopting a health care exchange, she said.
“But as far as what the cost is going to be, if the feds don’t know, we don’t know,” she said.
Central Washington University might have a lot to gain in this session. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s capital budget included $97 million for CWU building renovation and construction, including a new science building.
Warnick’s committee assignments changed this year, moving her from the higher education to K-12 education, but she’s still a member of the Capital Budget Committee.
She said lawmakers still have to find somewhere to start forthe capital budget, whether it’s Inslee’s or Gregoire’s proposed budget, or by making a new one.
Manweller said Central’s operating budget is in a similar boat. There’s no telling this early if state support for higher education will continue to drop, of if Olympia will move on a proposal from the state public university presidents to freeze tuition hikes in exchange for $225 million more toward higher education.
“There’s a little bit of chutzpah there,” Manweller said of the offer. “What I can tell you is nobody on the Higher Education Committee wants tuition to go up.”
Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Beyond the broader challenges facing state government, local representatives have specific goals of their own in mind for this session.
Manweller has five bills written, one of which is already going to committee.
That bill will allow local television improvement districts, like the one serving rural areas of Kittitas County, to expand their fee exemptions to homes that watch television via satellite and don’t make use of the district’s over-the-air broadcasts.
Of the other four, one proposes capping the bonus pay of university presidents at 20 percent on their base salary.
Manweller said he’s still finding cosponsors, and thinks he’ll be able to get some Democratic support for the bill, which comes after CWU agreed in 2011 to provide a $500,000 retention bonus to President Jim Gaudino if he stays on the job for five years.
“A lot of us up here on the hill think that in a time of recession, when people are losing their jobs, when we’re furloughing union staff, we probably shouldn’t be giving half-million dollar bonuses to our administrators,” he said. “They can still get bonuses, they just can’t get enormous bonuses.”
Another bill he’s looking for cosponsors on would suspend the prevailing wage law for the construction of public schools. The state defines prevailing wage as the hourly wage, usual benefits and overtime, paid in the largest city in each county, to the majority of its workers.
Manweller said the bill could save up to 38 percent on building costs for projects like a new middle school in Ellensburg. He said he expects union opposition toward the bill, but hopes it might garner some support from teacher and parent groups tired of losing on bond measures to build new schools.
Warnick plans to introduce a bill that would exempt prevailing wage requirements for rebuilding and construction for public projects affected by the August fires in Kittitas County. She said she’d like to introduce the bill this week.
Manweller has another bill in the works that would amend the state’s constitution to require legislative approval of state agency rules before they go into effect. Finally, another bill he calls a “grandparents’ bill of rights” would, within very narrow limits, make it easier for grandparents to visit grandchildren adopted by other families.
Family law is a sensitive area, and amending a state constitution is difficult, he said, and he’s looking for more cosponsors on those bills as well.
Other specific priorities for Warnick include reintroducing a bill that would exempt college textbooks from sales taxes and increasing transparency in the Legislature by adding time restrictions for public notice before bills are introduced or voted on.