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Published on Friday, July 31, 2015

2015 session was longest in history and ultimately, positive for cities

What a difference a year can make. At the end of the 2014 session, little was done to help cities across the state. By most accounts, there wouldn’t be enough revenue in 2015 to fund basic state needs during the 2015-17 biennium, let alone continue to support the needs of cities. Efforts to find agreement on funding for a transportation package seemed elusive and the State Supreme Court’s order that the Legislature make progress towards adequately funding K-12 education was a significant concern.

While it took legislators a record 176 days and 3 special sessions to complete their work, state revenue collections and economic revenue forecasts continued to be positive. Ultimately, there were agreements to make minor adjustments to add new revenue which allowed the Legislature more to spend, and they did just that! Examples include:

  • K-12 education funding increased by $1.3 billion with the acknowledgement that considerably more is needed to meet their obligations and the court’s order.
  • State employees saw their first across-the-board cost of living adjustments in several years.
  • Funds were provided to meet another court order related to housing mental health patients, as well as shoring up the social service safety nets around the state.

Washington’s stronger economy is the result of several factors, such as vibrant city economies – particularly in Central Puget Sound. Consumer confidence is on the rise, and once-dormant real estate excise tax revenues are streaming in.

With gasoline prices relatively low and stable, it was also time for the Legislature to enact a bipartisan supported $16+ billion 16-year transportation package funded mainly by a gas tax increase of 11.9 cents that partially showed up at the pump on August 1. This historic package included a number of things to help cities of all sizes maintain and construct streets, enhance safety for cyclists and pedestrians, and help provide and expand bus and light rail services.

Positive results for most legislative priorities

AWC’s legislative agenda sought to turn the tide of the state receding from the support of cities, and maybe even restore some of the support that went away during the recent recession. To accomplish this, we designed and implemented the Operation: Strong Cities campaign, which began immediately after session concluded in the spring of 2014. Our goal was to help city officials across the state engage with their legislators and potential legislators. The campaign included ways to identify and encourage legislative champions to stand up publicly and behind closed caucus doors and insist that city needs get addressed. We spent the summer and fall encouraging such engagement and found city officials very receptive and supportive.

We think the results from the 2015 session speak volumes about how more engagement from home and knowing how your own legislators are responding to your needs can make a difference, as well as what happens when legislative champions persist. Examples include:

  • After several years of reductions in state-shared revenues supporting local general fund budgets, the bleeding finally stopped. No cuts were made and liquor taxes shared with cities returned to pre-recession levels ($20+ million).
    • House Democrats were our most consistent and persistent advocates for this and we thank them!
  • Legislators buckled down and enacted regulations that better meld how medical and recreational marijuana businesses operate. They also accepted the fact that making these businesses safe, community assets requires support from cities and counties. As such, a portion of the state’s revenue collections will be shared with cities and will grow over time. Additionally, there are now ways to locally adjust how far these businesses are from certain places, and legislators chose not to pre-empt local authority over decisions to ban producers, processors, and retailers.
    • All four caucuses deserve thanks and praise on this topic – some more than others, but ultimately a high five to them all!
  • As previously noted, the transportation package was adopted with bipartisan support after years of efforts to ensure both state and local needs were addressed.
    • Kudos to the majorities in both Republican and Democratic Caucuses in the Senate for their widespread support, and also to House Democrats for theirs! A majority of House Republicans didn’t support the package, but neither did they stand in the way of its passage.
  • A robust Capital Budget was adopted that funds numerous projects of importance to individual cities. Significant programs supporting local parks, stormwater grants, and toxic site clean-ups were also funded.
    • Legislative leads on the Capital Budget didn’t know how much was available to spend until a deal was cut on the Operating Budget. Once they did, they rallied to the cause and all four caucuses deserve our thanks!
  • Unfunded mandates continue to be avoided, though it takes a lot of reminding to not do them!
    • Thanks to leadership all around the Capitol who kept these annoyances at bay!

There were several other important policy successes outlined in more detail in other sections of this Final Legislative Bulletin. Unfortunately, there were a few significant disappointments to what was otherwise a very successful session for cities. Key among them:

  • Failure to fund a Public Works Trust Fund project list. Other than continuing to support previously funded projects that haven’t been completed, this hugely successful program is suspended. All revenue streams that once supported it have been diverted to other priorities until after this biennium, after which the current Senate Majority Caucus has clearly indicated their intention to continue the diversion. That said, they and others acknowledge the need for an alternative way of supporting critical infrastructure investments. What that may look like will be a focus of AWC’s attention over the coming months and years.
  • Failure to advance ideas on how to help cities and counties save money and/or have the authority to generate more revenue locally. Last year, House Fiscal Committees showed interest in exploring ways to help cities and counties cut costs associated with state mandates or policies, as well as look at ideas on how to grant expanded authority to raise revenue locally. A number of ideas were generated and a few s-l-o-w-l-y gained enough traction to pass off the House floor with bipartisan support in the waning days of the 3rd Special Session. Senate leadership chose not to address them with so little time left and mostly no significant consideration of them prior to that by their members. Along with our friends in the counties, we’ll keep working on these.

Looking toward 2016

It’s possible that the Supreme Court might make the Legislature come back sooner than the 2016 legislative session. Legislators were required to “report in” on their progress, or lack thereof, in meeting the court’s order to adequately fund K-12 education. A report was issued July 21 and the court is expected to evaluate it and respond back by Labor Day. If they deem insufficient progress has been made, legislators may be forced to re-evaluate spending decisions just made, including those impacting cities.

Whether they come back early or not, the 2016 session is scheduled to last only 60 days. Typically, little of significance is done during these short sessions, but that might be different if, as expected, legislators have to find significant new funding for K-12 education. School funding aside, the months during and following next year’s session lead up to a big election year when all House members and half the Senate are up for election, as well as the Governor, other statewide officials, Congress members, a U.S. Senator and of course, an open spot at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. Most decisions made in Olympia will involve calculations on how they impact these other elections in November.

City officials are nonpartisan and AWC works continuously to engage constructively with legislators and others regardless of their political party. Our aim is to help foster strong cities and keep this a great state within which our community members live, learn, work, and play. After our Board of Directors complete an assessment of how best to do this during a late summer retreat, we’ll re-engage with our members, other interests, and legislators as we fine-tune our agenda for the upcoming session.

A final thanks to the hundreds of city officials around the state who took to heart the notion that strong cities don’t just happen by actions at home, but involve engaging at the state level as well. Your efforts made a difference this year and are still needed to make sure we don’t slip backwards.