When I last wrote to you, the Legislature was beginning its first of what would end up being three special sessions, during which lawmakers would continue their deliberation over a new, two-year operating budget and a means to address the 2012 state Supreme Court McCleary decision, which determined the state must end it's overreliance on local levy dollars to fund basic education. Finally, during the third special session, the Legislature passed an operating budget and a McCleary-fix bill. But the work wasn't over yet. The Legislature still had more to finish on a capital budget, which funds construction projects throughout the state, and a resolution to the devastating water-rights dispute known as the Hirst decision. Sadly, the Legislature adjourned last Thursday evening without either, and lawmakers have since returned home to their districts.
More information about all of this and more below.
Legislature passes new state operating budget
After 172 days of session, lawmakers finally reached an agreement on a new, two-year operating budget. There's a lot to look forward to in this budget but like with any compromise agreement, there are going to be things people like and things people dislike. Here are some of the highlights:
- makes historic investments in our K-12 system, which now represents more than 50 percent of the budget since the early 1980s;
- aids those providing necessary services to our most vulnerable populations;
- makes crucial investments in mental health that will help transition less-acute individuals out of state hospitals, which will help increase the availability of services for forensic patients; and
- improves the foster care system by enhancing respite care and providing additional options for children who are hardest to place.
Plus, all of this and more was accomplished without some of the Democrats' proposed tax increases, including a capital gains (income) tax and a carbon tax.
In the end, I still voted against this budget. State spending is slated to increase 14 percent compared to the 2015-17 biennium and another 14 percent in 2019-21. That's nearly a 30 percent increase over four years. This drastic increase in spending, which is heavily dependent on one-time revenue sources and other budget gimmicks, is simply unsustainable and is growing at a rate much greater than our families' personal incomes.
I've heard from many people living in our communities that they manage their households and live within their means — and they expect state government to do the same. It is possible to make meaningful investments in our education system, improve our mental and behavioral health institutions, empower the most vulnerable, and alleviate unnecessary burdens on hardworking Washingtonians — all without the seemingly inexorable spending Olympia has seen for the past several years. We must start taking a prioritized-spending approach if we want to get our fiscal house in order.
A McCleary fix
Lawmakers came into the 2017 session with one goal in mind: ensure the more than 1 million schoolchildren throughout Washington state receive a quality and equitable education, regardless of where they live.To do so, we knew we had to clear one major hurdle — satisfying the high court's McCleary obligations, which determined the state must cease it's overreliance on local levies to fund public, K-12 education.
After months of negotiations, the Legislature finally agreed on a solution — House Bill 2242. Most importantly, it fully funds K-12 education and addresses our state's increasing reliance on local levies. It also:
- increases state-funded compensation by $6 billion over four years to equip school districts with resources to recruit and retain quality staff and provide students with an equitable education program;
- provides minimum and maximum salary levels to ensure funding is distributed for teachers in all districts at all levels of experience;
- provides an automatic, annual COLA, keeping state salary allocations in pace with inflation;
- reduces the variation in teacher salaries in order to prevent teacher migration from poor districts to wealthy districts;
- caps local levy rates to provide relief to taxpayers in property-poor districts and caps per-pupil enrichment to increase uniformity in extracurricular options for students; and
- establishes a vigorous reporting and accounting system to ensure separation and tracking of revenues, thus providing transparency in both state funding and local decision-making and preventing the unconstitutional overreliance on local levies.
Despite all this good, I still had to vote against the bill. In 2018, every household will see a state property-tax increase, and between the years 2019 and 2021, about half of the school districts in the 6th District will see an increase compared to what they would have seen under current law in those corresponding years. I just couldn't justify placing an additional burden on the backs of hardworking taxpayers.
Third special session comes to a halt, without a capital budget or 'Hirst fix'
Last week, lawmakers left Olympia for the close of the 2017 Legislature without having passed a solution to a devastating state Supreme Court water-rights case or a new, two-year capital budget.
Last October, the high court ruled in what is known as the Hirst decision that Whatcom County had failed to adequately protect and preserve water resources in accordance with the Growth Management Act. In effect, landowners with undeveloped properties may never be able to obtain a building permit to dig a well and build on their land unless they can prove instream flows will not be harmed. And without water, property values plummet, shifting the tax burden onto other property owners. Needless to say, this decision has ramifications for everyone living in Washington state.
Recognizing the dire effects this decision could have on thousands of families, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed to negotiate a comprehensive, long-term fix. In fact, lawmakers had agreed, in good faith, to negotiate a 'Hirst fix' and the capital budget simultaneously after Republicans pointed out how hypocritical it would be to pass a capital budget that allows government to build while property owners throughout the state are being prevented from building on their very own land.
Last week, Republicans in the Legislature believed they had reached an agreement on a Hirst fix AND a capital budget. So lawmakers were called back last Thursday — the final day of the third special session — to take a vote. The compromise Hirst solution would have:
- Allowed cities and counties to rely on rules already established by the Department of Ecology (which allows the drilling of small, domestic wells so long as fewer than 5,000 gallons are drawn per day);
- Provided certainty for current and prospective landowners;
- Permitted property owners to drill wells for domestic purposes without needing a costly hydrogeological study;
- Ensured property values would not diminish in rural areas because of a lack of access to water;
- Allowed urban water suppliers to offer flexible mitigation packages that will protect fish habitat and guarantee future water supply;
- Created a task force to review the Foster decision; and
- Preserved the legal rights of senior water users
When lawmakers were called back to Olympia last Thursday — the final day of the third special session — Republicans in the House arrived ready to vote for both a Hirst fix and a new construction budget. But sadly, after pressure from a handful of Seattle Democrats, House Democrats sent their members home early without calling for a vote.
To say I'm disappointed would be an understatement. Lawmakers had a clear path forward for both a capital budget, which funds critical infrastructure projects throughout the state, and a Hirst fix. In the end, House Democrats decided to side with special interests, leaving many families' hopes and dreams utterly decimated.
Your citizen Legislature works for you year round
Just because the Legislature has adjourned for the year doesn't mean my work as your state representative ends. I encourage you to continue contacting me with your ideas, questions and concerns. My direct contact information is below.
Thank you for allowing me to represent you.