2015 Legislative Special Sessions Update

By Michael Shaw

At this writing, the Legislature is midway through its second special session. This is due to the Legislature’s reoccurring failure to reach a grand bargain on the operating budget that would address the State Supreme Court’s contempt order regarding basic education funding (McCleary), the Federal Court’s order regarding mental health treatment, the class-size initiative (I-1351), and the various collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the Governor. If they fail to do so by the end of June, then the State will face a government shutdown.  

The major sticking point in the negotiations concerns whether new taxes are necessary. The Republican-dominated Senate contends that with increased revenue collections (about $3.4 billion) no additional taxes are necessary. The Democratic-controlled House has argued for a capital gains tax of 5% which would generate about $550 million during the coming biennium and would provide a basic education funding source going forward. Both sides have made concessions over the last several weeks, but this issue of additional taxes seems to be keeping them in Olympia.

The operating budget deadlock has kept the capital budget stalled. They are at loggerheads over certain water projects and the floodplains-by-design program, but the shadow cast by the operating budget is the main culprit keeping the capital budget unresolved. The operating budget determines how much money the capital budget writers have to spend.

The transportation funding negotiations are moving forward, but that has its own issues—what amount of sales tax from the transportation projects can be used to finance the package, how much funding authority should Sound Transit get, and how to resolve the low carbon-fuel standard issue, which has the Governor and the Senate quarrelling. Many of the stakeholders worry the operating budget will sour legislators from voting for a large gas increase for transportation. There is only so much bandwidth for tough votes. Another worry is that legislators will not stay for a transportation vote if the operating budget is quickly resolved.  

On the positive side, the Legislature did pass the transportation biennial budget in the waning moments of the 1st special session.  The budget is “bare bones.” However, there were a few noteworthy increases: the budget provided an extra $10 million for county road preservation via the County Road Administration Board (CRAB); an extra $10 million for regional mobility grants; and an extra $10 million for special needs transportation grants. The Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) also received an extra $10 million. That money was divided between three programs: $3 million for the LED Street Light Program; $6 million for the Arterial Preservation Program; and $1 million (in additional funds) for the Small City Preservation Program.

The U.S. Open golf tournament has provided some respite to the Legislators and lobbyists from the sporadic floor action of the last several weeks. Lack of available hotel rooms will cause the capital to remain silent as only the negotiators meet. The rest of us will sit and wait.


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