This year’s state legislative session should feel like a sprint compared with the long-distance obstacle course of 2015, but there is so much work to do that lawmakers had better shoot from the blocks quickly if they want to finish on time.
Legislators returned to Olympia on Monday to start a 60-day session with the burden of still trying to obey a court order to fully fund K-12 education, save charter schools, possibly impeach the state auditor and address myriad social issues and other needs.
That’s a ton to get done in just a couple of months.
Typically, lawmakers hammer out a budget during odd numbered years and make simple adjustments during the session in-between. Last year, it took an additional three extra sessions before lawmakers could agree on a budget and adjourn, and nobody wants to see that again.
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Democrats and Republicans will have to set party politics aside and work together if they are going to make any meaningful progress on policy issues this time around.
It doesn’t help that lawmakers will be operating under a cloud called Initiative 1366. Legislators are hoping a court decision will save them from having to deal with the issue, but it is a gamble they don’t have to take.
Initiative 1366 is an extortion measure that forces lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would require a two-thirds supermajority vote for state tax increases.
It they don’t comply by April 15, then I-1366 cuts the state sales tax, which would result in the loss of $1.4 billion a year out of the state budget. The issue will be before a King County judge this month and then, in all likelihood, move on to the state Supreme Court. Leaders in both parties have said that’s a loss the state could not afford.
So they should put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, and then they won’t have to worry.
We hope I-1366 is found unconstitutional because coercion should not become a strategy for future initiatives.
Regardless of what the courts decide, lawmakers should listen to voters, who have a history of supporting the idea of requiring a supermajority for tax increases. Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, has said that when legislators want to work together, they can. They need to come together on this issue and get the amendment on the ballot.
It’s what the voters want, and lawmakers should listen.
School levy reform
On another persistent note, the McCleary decision also is not going away. The state Legislature must find a way to comply with the state Supreme Court decision and fulfill its obligation to fully fund basic K-12 education.
The crux of this likely will come in the way of school levy reform, and that means some school districts that have been filling in gaps with local tax money may face restrictions. That likely won’t be a pretty process, but it is necessary if the state funding system is going to be equitable. Students in poorer communities should not receive a less expansive education than students who live in wealthier areas.
Gov. Jay Inslee convened a work group to address the issue and a plan already has been unveiled. The bill creates a new task force to continue the work of the group, but also seeks more information from school districts from all over the state.
Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, told reporters at The Associated Press preview meeting that the data is extremely varied, and lawmakers should not proceed until they have all the facts.
Too bad this search for information wasn’t started sooner. Lawmakers have known for years that the state has failed to fund basic education. The longer they wait to find a solution, the more uncertainty there is, as well as a growing $100,000 a day sanction from the state Supreme Court.
Another educational issue that must be addressed immediately is finding a fix for charter schools around the state. The state Supreme Court ruled last fall that charter schools did not fit the state constitution’s definition of a common school and are not eligible to receive common-school funding.
Washington has nine charter schools serving 1,200 students who need lawmakers to save their school system, and they need it now.
A group of lawmakers are trying to find a way to impeach state Auditor Troy Kelley, who was indicted last year on charges of tax evasion, money laundering and possession of stolen property. This is another issue that needs to be settled as quickly as possible, and should not be allowed to take up valuable time needed to discuss other, vital policy issues.
In addition to these demands, lawmakers also will be asked to address homelessness, mental health issues and a variety of other requests from citizens. Setting priorities will be key, and the sooner legislators figure that out, the better. There is no time to waste.