Legislature Still has Work to Do

You may have read in the press that the Legislature got a budget done by midnight on June 30th, allowing the state to continue providing unemployment assistance, Medicaid, childcare, public schools, college classes, and all of the other things that we have decided to do collectively. I am frustrated that we were unable to come to an agreement more quickly, but pleased that we got it done. I’ll write more about the budget and what’s in it over the next few weeks.

However, we have work to do before we sign off. The Senate is high-centered on I-1351. I predicted that it would be difficult to come to a 2/3 vote on this issue and was proven correct by Tuesday night’s activities. Melissa Santos has a reasonable summary in the Tacoma News Tribune.

During the campaign season this fall I did not support I-1351 for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it is unaffordable. The cost this biennium is about $2 billion, and both the Senate and House budgets assume that the law will be suspended. In 2017 the initiative changes the “basic education” formulas, requiring schools to spend large amounts of money reducing class sizes in all grades, even if they think there are investments that would have a much higher return on investment – like providing high-quality early learning for 3 and 4 year olds, or providing highly focused extra tutoring sessions for at-risk kids. Once the Legislature puts money into “basic education” we have many court cases that suggest that we could only remove it for education, not financial reasons. In addition, about 2/3 of the money from I-1351 is reserved for non-teaching employees. I don’t think this is what we should be doing.

While I would dearly love to have that amount of money spent in more productive ways, it’s hard to imagine how we would raise it. The House Democrats don’t have the votes for the $6 billion the initiative would cost when fully implemented, nor do the Senate Republicans have the votes for an equivalent level of cuts elsewhere in the budget. I don’t believe any possible combination of cuts to other things and tax increases could pass. If they could, the first call on the money is resolving a current constitutional problem – the dependence of school districts on local taxpayers, not state taxpayers, for the money to provide adequate compensation to their employees. Most reasonable estimates put this cost at $3 to $3.5 billion a biennium.

The Senate needs to pass the bill we sent over that delays implementation of I-1351 for 4 years. Senate Democrats would like to force the Republicans to pass HB 2214, a bill that is described as removing biology as a graduation requirement. In addition, it essentially removes any objective measure of knowledge in English Language Arts and Mathematics from graduation requirements. I voted “no” on this bill in the House, but I was part of a relatively lonely minority – I think it passed 92-7. I believe we could significantly reduce the number of tests required of our high school students and remove the biology requirement until we have a more comprehensive science exam, but I am not willing to completely eliminate the expectations that our students will have at mastery of at least a minimal level of algebra and be able to read with comprehension and write effectively.

Surely some reasonable compromise can be reached over the next few days.

The House cannot pass the spending plan for the transportation package, even though we had a strong vote for the revenue part of it until the Senate finishes their work and sends the bill over. I don’t think the transportation plan is especially contentious, but it seems caught up in the fight. There are also two bills that set up the bonding mechanism for both the transportation and capital budget plans, without which neither can proceed. These bills need to pass in the next week or so to ensure that work continues.

I-1351 could be delayed for several months, but there is increasing legal and practical risk from such a strategy. I do not recommend that we finish this special session without addressing the problem.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.

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