Transportation tops issues in Olympia
The Legislature starts a 60-day session Monday to take up issues including transportation, mental health, medical marijuana, state pensions, abortion, and tuition assistance for students who aren’t legal residents. Here are some highlights of what to expect.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
The Legislature meets for a 60-day session this year to take up issues including transportation, mental health, medical marijuana, state pensions, abortion and tuition assistance for students who aren’t legal residents.
Democrats control the House and governor’s office while a GOP-led majority controls the Senate. It’s an election year, so expect to see plenty of posturing by both sides.
Here are some highlights of what to expect:
Transportation: This will be the biggest debate of the session, and it could easily consume most of the Legislature’s time.
The GOP-led majority in the Senate and the Democratic majority in the House have been trying for months to agree on a tax package that would increase the state gas tax by more than 10 cents a gallon and fund about $10 billion to $12 billion in transportation spending over the next 12 years, including expansions to Interstate 405 and Highway 167.
Lawmakers remain stuck on longstanding issues, including stormwater treatment, sales taxes collected from transportation projects, and funding for public transportation. New issues have cropped recently, including the prospect of cost overruns on the Highway 99 tunnel and the Highway 520 bridge.
This is an issue likely to be decided during the final days of the session.
Mental health: This could be a major topic this session. Some Democrats, mostly in the House, want to change the way the state administers mental-health services by allowing more private competition. Services are now administered by counties or groups of counties, except in Pierce County, where a private company, Optum Healthcare, administers the services. Those seeking change want companies to have a chance to run services in other counties, too. The goal, supporters say, would be improving efficiency and better integrating mental and physical health.
The issue has gained more attention because of concerns about making mentally ill residents wait for treatment in emergency rooms. Some lawmakers may also try to address this issue directly, but most solutions require money the state does not have.
Reproductive Parity Act: Democrats plan to push legislation requiring insurance companies to cover abortions. Supporters say it’s needed to ensure continued access to insurance coverage of abortion. Opponents contend it’s not needed because all insurers in the state already cover abortion. Legislation is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate, even if it passes the House.
Tuition assistance: Democrats also say they want to pass legislation that would make students who aren’t legal residents eligible for the state’s need grants if they meet certain conditions, including having a diploma from a high school in Washington. This is another bill unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate if it makes it out of the House.
Pensions: The GOP-led caucus in the Senate last year proposed moving the state’s pension system to a 401(k) type of retirement plan. A new push is expected in light of Boeing’s recent decision to phase out its pension in a contract that won slim approval by the Machinists union. Democrats say they will oppose such a move.
Medical marijuana: A push is expected to exempt medical marijuana from state sales taxes. Currently, prescription drugs are exempt from sales taxes, but pot is not.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or email@example.com. Seattle Times reporter Brian M. Rosenthal contributed to this story.