State Democrats Plot Ambitious Course After Reclaiming the Senate

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OLYMPIA — The Democratic policy wish list is long. The upcoming 2018 legislative session is short. The margins of control are slim.

With Manka Dhingra winning Washington’s 45th District special Senate election, Democrats are soon expected to hold both chambers in the Legislature and the governorship.

As of Wednesday, Dhingra maintained about 55.5 percent of the vote, a double-digit lead over Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund.

Dhingra, a senior deputy prosecutor for King County, said Wednesday she felt “tired, but good.”

“We ran a campaign based on values,” Dhingra said. “Not on hate, not on fearmongering, not on putting the other side down.”

Now, Democrats face the test of governing.

After several years of divided control and contentious negotiations between the parties, this one-vote shift is simultaneously small and also potentially seismic.

Even with a unified government, Democrats would control the Legislature with the slimmest of margins — by one vote in the Senate and two votes in the House.

Their first big test is expected to come in the 60-day legislative session that starts in January — which also happens to be an election year for most lawmakers.

Democrats won’t have much time — and in some cases, not enough votes — to pursue the full agenda they and Gov. Jay Inslee have staked out in recent years.

Still, Inslee and Democratic legislators Wednesday said they’ll use the upcoming session to press forward on a range of issues.

Those priorities include passing a capital-construction budget and finding an agreement on a rural water-use bill that led to an impasse this year over both those bills. Democrats also want to enact a state voting-rights bill intended to protect the opportunity for minorities to participate in local elections.

There’s a bill to require health plans to provide coverage for services such as birth control at no cost to patients, which Dhingra has said she’d sponsor, and other bills on women’s reproductive health.

Also mentioned are several bills involving gun regulations — including a possible ban on bump-stocks that modify rifles for rapid fire — and environmental policies.

Dhingra’s victory is “opening the door” to many of those proposals, Inslee said in a phone interview from Bern, Switzerland. The governor is on an 11-day trip to Europe to talk about apprenticeships, aerospace and climate change.

As she plots the course for control of the chamber, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, of Maury Island, said lawmakers will also look at the House Democratic proposal to reduce car-tab fees.

They would also consider closing tax exemptions to raise revenue, she added. That could potentially soften the blow of the property-tax plan lawmakers approved this year to satisfy a court-ordered, K-12 school-funding plan, Nelson said.

And Inslee said he won’t wait until 2019’s budget-writing legislative session to resume his push for ambitious legislation to combat climate change. Inslee has seen his climate agenda in recent years foiled by the GOP Senate. “I’m talking to legislators about options” for 2018, he said.

 

Capital-Gains Tax

Notably absent from Wednesday’s talk was discussion of a new tax on capital gains, which Nelson acknowledged faces uncertainty in a Democratic Senate.

House Democrats and Inslee have proposed versions of that in recent years, both to raise more revenue and to make Washington’s tax system more progressive.

“I don’t know that the Legislature can get that done” in 2018, said Dhingra, who has declared her support for a capital-gains tax.

In the meantime, Nelson said she’s assembling a group of senators to take a long-term look at how to make Washington’s tax system less regressive.

Other lawmakers are looking at a potential carbon-pricing plan, Nelson said, “But I don’t know that we can get that done in 60 days.”

Republican legislators Wednesday looked on and pondered a future under Democratic control.

“There’s going to be a shift to the left in the Legislature, and the question is how far,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, in a statement. “That will be determined by the power struggles in the Democratic caucuses.”

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and longtime foe of Inslee’s climate agenda, predicted major climate-change legislation simply wouldn’t get done.

In recent years, the governor’s carbon tax and a cap-and-trade plan, as well as many Democratic tax proposals, haven’t even gotten House floor votes.

“In the past, they have not been able to deliver the votes to put forward a lot of the things that they care about,” Ericksen said of Democrats.

Inslee said Wednesday he’s still interested in calling back lawmakers in early December to pass a capital-construction budget, which contains nearly $1 billion for new school construction.

Senate Republicans this year refused to move on that budget without Democrats agreeing to legislation they sought regarding rural-water use.

The capital-construction budget itself could pass with a simple majority. But the accompanying bonding bill needs a 60-percent vote — meaning Democratic senators would still need five GOP votes to pass it.

Nelson said it isn’t worth lawmakers returning in December if those votes aren’t available.

Absent an agreement on rural-water use, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he doubted there are enough Republican votes for the bond bill.

Given the various taxes Democrats have proposed in recent years, Schoesler said he’ll be surprised if they don’t put forth new taxes in the upcoming session.

But, “They can’t blame me anymore” for stopping them, Schoesler said, adding later: “Watch your wallet.”