If ever there was a legislative session that proved Otto von Bismarck right, it is the one we just finished. Von Bismarck is the former German chancellor we always quote about legislating and sausage-making: “Laws are like sausages – it is better not to see them being made.”
The session this year wasn’t a pretty thing to watch, but in the end we got historic results. More than enough to outweigh the fact we stayed in Olympia far too long, we had to wait two months for our Democratic friends to begin serious budget negotiations, and we came to the brink of a government shutdown. Thing is, nobody measures the Legislature’s success by the smoothness of its process – it’s what we accomplish that counts. By that score this was one of the most productive sessions ever.
You have to remember, six months ago people were talking as if the apocalypse was at hand. We had $3 billion more to spend than the last time we wrote a budget, but everyone from the governor on down insisted we faced a $2 billion deficit. There was a fellow at the Seattle Times who wrote, “[I] don’t see how lawmakers leave Olympia without raising taxes.” Our Democratic friends proposed the biggest tax increase in the history of the state.
So that’s victory number one. This year’s Legislature did not impose a general tax increase. We did end a couple of small tax breaks, which some members of the Democratic majority in the House are calling a major victory, and we raised gas taxes for road construction with our transportation package. But that’s not quite the same thing as imposing $1.5 billion in new and increased taxes to finance the growth of government, remake the state economy to suit liberal urban activists, and set the state up for an income tax in the future.
Victory number two? We fully funded basic education, passing the best K-12 budget we have seen in the last 30 years. We increased spending by $1.3 billion and we made significant progress in satisfying the state Supreme Court mandate that we do right by our schools.
The real history-making came with our tuition rollback, a top priority for our caucus. For the first time in any state, this Legislature enacted a major reduction in higher education tuition — 15 percent at our research institutions, 20 percent at regional universities, 5 percent at community colleges. Just as important, we put a lid on future increases. We have ended the damaging trend of the last 35 years that has made college all but unaffordable and has burdened our young with alarming levels of debt.
We reached agreement on a transportation package that launches the first major highway construction program in a decade — critically important to relieving traffic congestion and maintaining the competiveness of our economy. Our caucus made sure this was different from packages of the past. This one finishes the big projects we have started, fixes the roads we already have, and makes big reforms to ensure transportation dollars are spent efficiently and effectively.
Other achievements? We made significant investments in mental health care and treatment, beefed up emergency preparedness for oil-train spills, created a new medical school at WSU-Spokane, and found a way to reconcile our rather lax medical-marijuana system with tightly regulated recreational sales.
And we created new incentives for job creation, by extending and enacting special tax rates and policies for specific businesses and industries – food processing, data center construction, aluminum smelting, log trucking, boat manufacturing. Along with the tuition reduction, these incentives combine to reduce the net tax burden on the state.
So who drove this agenda? On taxes, tuition and other major issues, the Majority Coalition Caucus set the pace. What snarled us, I think, was that our Democratic counterparts opened with an absurd tax proposal that reached too far. By April unrelenting good news about the economy should have made it clear to everyone we had enough money. It took months for our friends to concede what seemed so obvious to us, and that is why frustrations ran high and the ending was messy. Yet the messiness of the process never is as important as the result, and what we accomplished ought to be counted as a splendid success for the people of Washington.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.