This week, lawmakers return to committee work—with an interesting twist: The Democratic-controlled House will mostly be working on policy bills sent over from the Majority Coalition Caucus (23 Repbulicans plus two conservative Democrats) controlled Senate and vice versa. Committees don't have to take up every bill sent their way, of course, and they can add amendments—or gut and substitute in completely new text—to anything. But, as you'll see, there aren't a lot of controversial bills scheduled to be taken up this week.
But there's another, bigger twist this week that will likely take the focus of session away from policy discussions entirely, at least for a while: On Wednesday, the state's top economist will release his economic and revenue outlook for the state. Lawmakers in the House and Senate will use numbers from that report to write separate versions of a state budget, and most of the rest of session will be devoted to sorting out the differences in those documents and cobbling together enough agreement to call it a year.
On Wednesday, the state's top economist will release his economic and revenue outlook for the state.
Meanwhile, as we noted in Morning Fizz, Gov. Jay Inslee is going propose closing a list of tax breaks worth hundreds of millions this week.
With all that in mind, here are highlights from the schedule this week:
Today, Monday, March 18, the House Transportation Committee will hold a public hearing on a host of new budget bills (that weren't subject to last week's policy cut off) aimed at ensuring that the 520 bridge fiascos aren't repeated. Most of the seven bills on the agenda are priorities for Republicans in the House, who say major reforms are necessary before they'll support any transportation tax (which House Democrats proposed earlier this month). One bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve O'Ban (R-28, Pierce County) would require any construction project errors to be reported. Another, sponsored by Rep. Jay Rodne (R-5, North Bend) would require "right-sizing" for transportation projects.The hearing starts at 3:30 p.m.
The Senate education committee will meet at 1:30 p.m. for a public hearing on six bills aimed at education reform, from establishing a K-12 online professional development network to reducing the drop-out rate through prevention programs. Most of the bills on the agenda were sponsored by Democrats in the House but passed with bipartisan support. The Supreme Court told lawmakers via the McCleary decision that they'd need to spend much more on K-12—most estimates say somewhere around a billion dollars this year—though lawmakers have mostly discussed reforms so far this session.
On Tuesday, March 19, the House Government Operations and Elections Committee will hold a public hearing at 8 a.m. on two bills aimed at bringing more transparency to elections. One bill would aggregate the cost of related ballot measure ads so the top five sponsors could be identified. Another would increase transparency of donors to candidates and ballot measures. They may sound more controversial than they are: Both passed unanimously in the Senate.
At 1:30 p.m. the House Education committee will hold a hearing on the bill to put more focus on early reading assessments. The biggest thing the Republican-sponsored bill would do: Require that anytime a student doesn't pass the third grade reading assessment, their teacher and parents must meet to discuss whether the child should move to the next grade level. A companion bill failed to advance in the House.
Also at 1:30, the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee is holding a public hearing on a new bill, sponsored solely by Rep. Chris Hurst, to "facilitate efforts of the liquor control board" in implementing Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana. That hearing will be televised on TVW.
On Wednesday, March 20, the Economic and Revenue Forecast meeting starts at noon. That's when lawmakers will get a nonpartisan estimate of how much money the state will collect in taxes over the next budget cycle, which they'll use to write versions of the budget to be released in coming weeks.
At 1:30 p.m., the Senate education committee will hold a hearing on Gov. Jay Inslee's bill to increase science, technology, engineering and math education in the state. The bill passed the House 58 to 40: The Senate version passed unanimously.
Also at 1:30, the House Higher Education committee will hold a work session on changes in tuition policies. Until last year, tuition at the state's colleges and universities was set by a statewide panel. The Legislature gave universities the right to set their own tuition, however, after years of budget cuts reduced state spending on higher education dramatically.
One side effect of skyrocketing tuition, was that it put the Guaranteed Education Tuition program in peril. That state program allows parents to pre-pay for college credits near today's rate. The state invests the money, then guarantees that the credits purchased will keep pace with the most expensive public tuition in the state. This session, Senate Majority Coalition Caucus leader Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina) called for an end to the program, while some Democrats have tried to save it. Tom's bill is still in the ways and means committee.
On Thursday, March 21 that same committee will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss "performance funding" for higher education. The idea is that state funding would be tied to outcomes -- increased graduation rates or more science graduates, for example. The hearing is a work session, meaning it isn't tied to a specific proposal, though it's certainly a signal of what lawmakers are considering.
And on Friday, March 22 the House Finance Committee will hold a work session on marijuana taxation—including how to accurately forecast revenues and lessons learned from taxing liquor and cigarettes. The balance the state faces with taxing marijuana, of course, is how to reap the most revenue without driving prices so high that the black market keeps its customers.