- Associated Press - Monday, January 13, 2014

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Washington’s Legislature began its latest session Monday much the way the last one ended - with little agreement on how to proceed on several policy issues.

In a rare opening day vote, House lawmakers approved a bill that would expand state financial aid to students who are living in the country illegally. It was swiftly swatted down by leaders in the Senate, however, who also didn’t give the bill a vote a year ago.

Without a major budget shortfall to deal with this year, lawmakers are pushing a variety of policy bills for the 60-day session, but the wide philosophical chasm between the House and Senate means many of those proposals have uncertain fate.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the Democratic leader of the predominantly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, said that while he thinks the financial aid measure is an “important bill,” his caucus is focused on other issues.

“What we’re focused on in the Senate is moving this economy forward, and those are the issues that we’re going to really focus on this session - jobs, education, making sure we have a sustainable budget,” he said. Last year, the Senate approved a measure that would make changes to the state workers’ compensation system, and that didn’t get a hearing in the House.

House Speaker Frank Chopp called on his colleagues to take action. He dedicated much of his opening message to the financial aid proposal, saying the state constitution calls on lawmakers to provide an education to all students who reside in the state.

“It is fundamental to our state and nation,” Chopp said.

Democrats in the House also began immediate committee consideration of a bill that would require Washington insurers cover abortions in addition to the maternity care they’re already mandated to provide. That’s another bill the Senate declined to consider last year.

Many of the issues on the agenda this year were also discussed in 2013 but didn’t make progress. That includes a proposal to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation projects.

Some lawmakers also want to continue talks on how to grow spending for the state education system, whether to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana laws to bring it in line with the new legal recreational system, and whether to take action on competing gun initiatives that would otherwise appear on the ballot for voters to consider.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen gave a message of unity in his first floor speech of the session, saying both sides are concerned about education and the vulnerable. He said while there are going to be differences, he expects lawmakers to work together and finish the job on time - unlike last year.

“We will debate the issues,” Kristiansen said. “We will do it in a respectful fashion.”

The financial aid bill passed the chamber by a 71-23 margin after a brief debate.

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