Washington lawmakers started their 105-day legislative session Monday, tasked with writing a new two-year state budget while addressing a variety of costly issues, including addressing the state’s troubled mental health system.
Democrats increased their margins in both legislative chambers after the November election, and now hold a 28-21 majority in the Senate and a 57-41 edge in the House. A total of 22 new members were sworn into the House Monday and six new members were sworn into the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Democrat from Spokane, said lawmakers would be moving forward on climate policies as well as making progress on improving the mental health system and that both parties will work toward solutions.
“We make better decisions when we have the broadest amount of input,” he said. “I believe we will work toward bipartisan solutions as much as we possibly can.”
Rep. J.T. Wilcox, the House Republican leader, said even though they are the minority party, they have ideas to offer on various issues, including affordable housing. He said that while Democrats have the votes to pass any bill that they want, he called on his fellow Republicans to “be the accountability people.”
“It is hard for single-party government to hold itself accountable,” he said in a speech on the House floor. “We need to be the ones that hold government accountable.”
For the first time in years, lawmakers will write a new two-year budget without the primary focus being satisfying a court mandate on education funding, though they say there’s still work to be done to continue to improve basic education, especially on special education.
House Speaker Frank Chopp gave an emotional final opening day speech, calling for work on homelessness and specifically calling out the issue of homeless youth.
“We should not see them as isolated individuals, but as our own kids in our own family,” he said before having to pause, choking back tears. “For God’s sake, let’s meet this challenge to provide a home and hope for all of our kids.”
Chopp announced last month that he would be stepping down from his leadership role at the end of the legislative session, but would remain a member of the Legislature. He has been the state’s longest-serving speaker and is the second longest-serving House speaker in the nation.
Mental health reform and funding is an area that the governor, Chopp and lawmakers in both parties have said needs to be a top priority this year.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who introduced his budget proposal last month, proposed $675 million in spending over the next two years to address the state’s behavioral health system, including expanding treatment options and additional housing support. Lawmakers also plan to address concerns at Western State Hospital, an 850-plus bed facility in Lakewood that has been plagued with problems and has lost its certification by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and federal funding after it repeatedly failed health and safety inspections.
Leaders in the House and Senate will release their budget proposals in the coming months and will work in the coming months to negotiate a final budget before the session concludes at the end of April.
Inslee, who is weighing a 2020 presidential run, will deliver his annual State of the State speech Tuesday afternoon.
The Legislature convened minus two members who resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct. Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island resigned Friday amid an outside investigation into inappropriate conduct with a former legislative assistant. Leaders say the process for his replacement will start soon.
He was the fourth lawmaker in the past six months to either lose an election or resign because of sexual misconduct allegations. House Republicans are also in the midst of awaiting the outcome of the process of choosing a replacement for Rep. Matt Manweller, who submitted his resignation letter last month after allegations of a relationship with a former high school student in the 1990s when she was 17 and allegations of inappropriate conduct at Central Washington University, where he was fired from his professor position last August.
During his chamber speech, Chopp addressed the issue of sexual harassment at the Capitol, saying that among the work lawmakers need to achieve this year is “getting our own house in order.”
He noted the work of lawmakers, lobbyists and staff over the past year to come up with recommendations and a code of conduct.
“Together, we will create a workplace where everyone is treated with respect,” he said.