OLYMPIA — When the Washington Legislature's 2023 session convenes on Monday, the biggest challenge for lawmakers won't be a specific bill package but whether Republicans and Democrats can bridge their ideological divide to work together.
A Thursday legislative preview sponsored by the Washington State Association of Broadcasters and the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington revealed how much Democrats and Republicans disagree on key issues to address.
Legislative leaders gathered in the John A. Cherberg Building at the Capitol Campus in Olympia to discuss those issues and how they will fit into Gov. Jay Inslee's proposed $70.4 billion 2023-25 operating budget.
Democratic House Leader Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma said November's election results show Washingtonians trust Democrats to lead the state and bring innovative solutions to challenges. The November midterm election left Democrats in charge of both the House and Senate but without the two-thirds majority needed to push legislation through without Republican support.
"We did a lot of work to help working families and communities return to work and to move forward ... and to not have a lot of barriers to our recovery," Jinkins said.
Jinkins said voters have also made it clear that housing and homelessness should be the priorities for the Legislature, along with providing access to behavioral health, improving community safety and protecting abortion rights.
"The other thing I think will be an omnipresent issue for all of these, and that will prevent us from solving any of them, is if we don't address workforce in a really big way this session," Jinkins added. "We're looking forward to leading the way, hopefully in a bipartisan way. ... Hopefully finding common ground will be something that we're able to do."
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane said the last five years have been among the most consequential and productive for the Legislature and the state. Billig said affordable housing, behavioral health, rewriting state law in response to the Blake ruling regarding drug possession — which he believes will need bipartisan support — and access to reproductive health are important issues, but he had others to add.
"Child care is so important, not just because we know that's important for kids for the rest of their lives to get that high-quality early learning start, but it's also important from a workforce perspective," Billig said.
Billig said workforce issues are impacting everything from law enforcement to health care and education. With around 50 percent of the state's operating budget going to K-12 education, Billig said there are still gaps to fill.
"Some areas we're going to be looking at in addition to early learning education are special education and continuing the student supports we've already been working on," he said.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders said they remain focused on providing tax relief to the state's residents and small businesses.
"We enter into this with about $6 billion in ending fund balance, and we have about $1.5 billion in mandatory costs, and that's net," Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said during the session. "That leaves us with about $4.5 billion to work with."
Wilson, who is the ranking member on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said her caucus wants that money put toward tax relief. During the 2022 session, Wilson sponsored a bill that would have exempted the first $250,000 of a homeowner's primary residence from the state property tax, but the bill didn't make it out of committee.
House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm said Republicans and Democrats are ready to come together to address housing and homelessness issues.
Wilcox said Republicans like Rep. Andrew Barkis from Olympia are "partnering with Democrats to find as much common ground as we possibly can to make sure that we address all of the roadblocks that make it hard to add to our inventory of housing."
That would fit well with Inslee's proposed budget. Inslee has said he wants the Legislature to prioritize housing to build thousands of new housing units. That effort would be funded by raising $4 billion by issuing bonds outside the state's debt limit, which would require approval from the Legislature and voters.
"It is making an investment that actually produces an asset," Inslee said Thursday. "We get something for our money, which is housing."
Inslee said addressing the homelessness crisis will only be successful if solutions match the scale of the problem, an idea he said he believes voters support. Inslee's proposal would allow around 5,000 housing units to be built in the next two years and another 19,000 units in the following six years.
"We need to do this now ... it's not acceptable for the next 20 or 30 years to have this squalor as a blight on the state of Washington and put so many people who are experiencing homelessness into terrible living situations," Inslee said.
The governor's budget also includes funding for mental and behavioral health care, the environment and public safety. The House and Senate will be releasing their budget proposals in the coming weeks.
A new Crosscut/Elway poll released Thursday showed most voters want the Legislature focused on economic recovery.
Of the 403 registered voters sampled in the poll, 39 percent put the state's economy as the top priority for the 2023 session, followed by public safety (23 percent), homelessness (22 percent) and taxes (17 percent), among others.
When asked how the next year looks, voters were most optimistic about their individual household finances rather than the state or national economy.
"It has more or less trended down for the last several years and then run off the cliff last year ... July of last year was the lowest point it has ever reached. But it bounced back this July," pollster H. Stuart Elway said about voters' concerns during the session.