Dear Friends and Neighbors,

It is hard to believe another legislative session has come to a close. It has been a long road since we started in January, with positives, negatives and many ongoing challenges.

Capitol in Early SummerI am happy to report there were some important measures passed during the regular 2015 legislative session, including meaningful steps toward reforming the unregulated medical marijuana industry in Washington, and a measure to increase the safety of oil transportation along rail lines in our state.

Adjourning under the governor’s order to return this week for the start of a special session however, didn’t feel like much of an ending. I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect on what has happened so far, and take a look at what the coming weeks may bring.

End of Session Update

As I mentioned in my first e-newsletter, the Legislature had a few significant tasks to complete in the 2015 legislative session:

1)    Writing the state budget for the next two years;

2)    Fulfilling our obligation to fully fund education; and

3)    Passing a transportation revenue package.

We are making progress on the transportation revenue package, but the split Legislature – with the House of Representatives and Governor’s office controlled by Democrats, and the Senate controlled by Republicans – has made passing the operating budget and agreeing on education funding difficult.

The House Democrats proposed a budget (about $38 billion), as did the Senate Republicans (about $37 billion). Both had similar funding for reductions in K-3 class sizes, classroom materials and voter approved teacher Cost of Living Adjustments. But there were many differences in funding levels for mental health, parks, foster care and other important state responsibilities.

And as you can see from the chart below, there are also significant differences in where the funding comes from.

Budget Comparison

As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” Further funding cuts to foster care, mental health and food assistance for working families is not an acceptable solution. Neither are unsustainable one-time funds shifts and budgetary gimmicks. The Senate Republican budget also disregarded previously bargained contracts for state employees. Not only do they not have the legal authority to do this, they have taken it upon themselves to deny modest wage increases for employees, like prison guards and mental health workers, who work in difficult and sometimes dangerous jobs and have not had a raise in seven years.

When it comes down to it, I think we need to ask ourselves – are most Washingtonians paying enough of their income in taxes already? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is a resounding yes. People making poverty wages pay about 17% of their income in taxes, middle income families pay over 10%, while people making over $1 million pay less than 2.5% of their income in taxes.

From a political standpoint, it is clear that each side needs to be realistic and be willing to compromise. But Washington has the most unfair tax system in the nation, and we cannot afford to continue as we are if we want to have a strong economy where everyone has the chance to succeed.

I am ready and willing to compromise, but we need sustainable revenue in order to meet our education, infrastructure and state operating needs – and that shouldn’t come at the expense of those already paying their fair share.

Capitol DomeGood Bills, Good Laws

In addition to making strides toward reforming unregulated medical marijuana markets and making oil transportation by rail safer, there are a few other good policy bills we can put in the ‘win’ column for this session:

  • Joel’s Law (SB 5269): This will give family members of seriously mentally ill individuals the tools to help their loved ones receive treatment.
  • Washington Tribal History Curriculum (SB 5433): Requires schools to include curriculum that teaches our students about the rich history, laws and sovereignty of Washington’s 29 federated tribes.
  • Forage Fish (SB 5166): Small species of forage fish, like smelt and herring, play a big role as indicators of the overall health of the Puget Sound and the health of salmon, orcas and other marine animal populations, including birds. This bill gives the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife the ability to study why these fish populations have declined dramatically, and what we can do to reverse the trend.

We still have many needs to address that were left out this year, and some continued work around legislation that did pass. However, these bills both make Washington a better place, and stand as a testament to the good work that can be done through bipartisanship – something I hope to see more of as we finalize state budgets.

Special Session: What is it, and why do we need one?

A special legislative session is called for by the governor when critical business of the state needs to be done. In this case, Gov. Jay Inslee called for a special session to finalize the state budgets.

Each special session can go for up to thirty days, although you might recall that in 2013 the Legislature went into two special sessions, with the budget being signed on June 29 – just two days before a government shutdown (a budget must be agreed to and signed before July 1).

Although most budget negotiations right now have come to a standstill, I remain optimistic that we will be able to come to an agreement. The majority of lawmakers, community groups and newspapers around the state believe it is clear that, contrary to what Senate Republicans are saying, we need more revenue to meet our obligations to our kids and our citizens. And I think we need to get this revenue in an honest way that doesn’t fall onto more taxes for working families – and doesn’t land us back in the same gridlock year in and year out.

Elementary Kids ReadingEducation Update

It is for good reason our state constitution calls education our “paramount duty” – we all rely on a qualified and educated workforce to ensure we have a strong economy and healthy infrastructure. And I believe a quality public education for all students is the best investment we can make toward that goal.

We have many great schools and educators in Washington. However, the state has long been underfunding facets of basic education like materials, transportation and educator compensation – creating inequity between districts that can afford higher levies and those that cannot.

The state is currently in contempt of court for not coming up with a plan to address this and fully fund basic education, as required under the court case known as McCleary. In an effort to get out of contempt and push forward on meeting our funding needs, my colleagues Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, proposed a comprehensive McCleary plan (SB 6104), levy equalization plan (SB 6103) and a funding mechanism through capital gains tax (SB 6102), respectively.

Senate Republicans also came up with a levy plan, although rather than using a tax that affects only the richest 7,500 Washingtonians, they use property taxes to leverage against local levies.

LR

While the plan put forward by the Senate Democrats doesn’t have to be the last word, I believe the first word in any discussion regarding budgets needs to be “fairness”. To say property rich districts can afford to pay more in property taxes completely misses the point that property rich is not the same thing as personally rich. For many people, their homes are their only major asset, and young families or those on a fixed income cannot afford to pay for all our state’s education needs with higher property taxes.

Education funding will be central to talks in special session, and I will continue to update you as conversations progress. To read more about the Senate Democrats’ plan, please click here.

Your Call

We are elected to serve you – and it is you who makes the final call about how this state moves forward. I encourage you to be in contact with me and my colleagues to let us know what you think about the budgets and how to proceed. You can find contact information for all state senators here, and representatives here.

As always, thank you for subscribing to my newsletter, and I will continue to update you on the budget as special session gets underway.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Regards,

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