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Surprises headline session’s first week

The first week of the legislative session flew by quickly — and offered a few surprises.

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-12th District, said the first week went by in a blur as new legislators were sworn in, Gov. Jay Inslee delivered his State of the State address and committees began considering bills.

Next week will bring a full schedule of committee hearings as lawmakers settle into the 60-day session.

“There’s not as much time” allotted to the session as in a budget-year, 105-day session, Parlette said. “Everything’s condensed.”

“From day one, it already feels like week three,” Rep. Shelly Short, R-7th District, said.

One early surprise was House passage of the DREAM Act, a college financial aid program, on the session’s opening day, she said.

Legislators also got a surprise from Inslee, who in his address deviated from the supplemental budget he submitted by calling for cost of living increases for teachers sooner than anticipated. He also called for an increase in the state’s minimum wage by as much as $2.50 per hour.

Parlette said the state doesn’t have money for either one right now, although as a former school board member she supports public schools and their teachers.

Inslee’s proposals come on the heels of last week’s state Supreme Court order requiring the Legislature to pump more money into public schools.

The senator said it’s difficult in a supplemental budget year to come up with more money for either one.

The minimum wage and teacher pay issues also take away from talks about implementing the federal Affordable Care Act, she said.

Rep. Cary Condotta, R-12th District, said the House Republican Caucus plans to issue a written response to the court’s McCleary order.

Many legislators view the order as overstepping the court’s bounds.

An increase in the minimum wage “would be pretty devastating to Eastern Washington,” Condotta said. “He didn’t say how he would pay for it. It’s just like (he thinks) the money’s going to rain down from heaven.”

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-7th District, said he’s gotten a strong sense that lawmakers are focused on completing the session in the allotted 60 days. He said one of the big questions will be how well the Legislature handles the “curve ball” on education funding from the state Supreme Court.

The court order made waves to kick off the legislative session, but several other policy issues have risen to the forefront in the first week of the session, Kretz and Short said.

Kretz said the governor’s transportation package, which includes a gas tax hike of about 11 cents, has “gotten a constant barrage of negativity.”

One example of how the state Department of Transportation has “bungled things” is the project of boring a tunnel to replace Seattle’s waterfront viaduct. On Dec. 6, the tunnel-boring machine, known as Bertha, was halted by a steel pipe and hasn’t moved since.

“It doesn’t make me want to throw more money at it,” Kretz said.

Short said there are two particular topics that have captured her attention so far this session — medical marijuana and hydropower.

The Legislature is in the process of determining how to handle medical marijuana in the wake of Initiative 502 legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012.

Short said she’s “not real crazy” about legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, but considers it a “quality of life issue” for cancer patients or those in chronic pain who use the drug for medicinal purposes.

Short is also continuing to push House Bill 1347, which would classify hydropower as a renewable resource under the energy independence act.

She said this bill would prevent ratepayers from being charged double for using hydropower. She hopes this year will find the momentum for the bill to be passed.

Short, Kretz and Condotta are among the bill’s sponsors.

“I’m always interested in keeping our utility rates low,” Short said. “Things are starting to percolate through the process.”

In the next week, Parlette expects some action on bills, including a workers compensation bill and one to require the state revenue forecast be in legislators’ hands by Feb. 20 each year instead of March 20.

Rep. Brad Hawkins, R-12th District, could not be reached for comment on the opening days of the session.

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