As legislators look down the barrel of a potential third special session, budget talks in Olympia continue. Lawmakers are seeking agreement on the K-12 education funding issue. For weeks now, negotiators in the House and the Senate have been working toward a solution. The eight-member negotiation team, which includes two members from each caucus, is meeting regularly. Although some progress has been made, they haven't come up with a complete plan for policy surrounding K-12 education funding.
What's the hold-up? Accusations are floating around blaming an “ideological agenda” of “hardliners” who oppose new state taxes—including a state income tax. Maybe. But, when you're talking about a potential increase of $8 billion in taxes, I tend toward the side of the “hardliners.”
So, how do we fix and fund K-12 education? According to the state Supreme Court, the solution must also end local school districts' overreliance on local property tax levies to fund teacher and staff salaries. In an August, 2015 court order they determined, “the state may not constitutionally rely on local levies to pay for basic education generally.”
In fact, the misuse of local levies is a main focus in the Court's McCleary decision. This levy disparity issue is at the heart of the current education funding negotiations. The “fix” needs to include levy statewide reform. I'd like to see a flat statewide levy—everyone in Washington paying the same percentage, instead of the patchwork of different percentages we have right now. This reform can generate new money for public schools, while cutting property taxes for many Washingtonians and raising property taxes on just a few people living in areas with the highest real estate values.
Here's another point: With the state already bringing in an additional $3 billion in new revenue from existing taxes, we're closer than some people admit to a McCleary solution. If we budget carefully, we can apply most of that new money to K-12 schools. That will take some of the financial pressure off of levy reform or other revenue sources.
Careful budgeting is difficult, though, when some people are playing political games. In the State House, negotiations have been difficult because Democrat majority has been, as of this week, unwilling to bring their own plan for raising taxes to a floor vote. They know their tiny majority won't stick together and support the plan—so their leadership is playing a delay game.
In contrast, Senate Republicans have proposed a change in property tax levies, which would fundamentally shift the unequal local levy system we have today. The Senate's proposal for levy reform would satisfy the courts mandate to end school districts dependence on local levies. It creates a uniform state property tax. This system is fair, flat and equal for all Washingtonians.
Here's why many urban-area House Democrats don't like this plan. The change raises property (levy) taxes in some areas—like Seattle, Bellevue and Mercer Island, but it lowers them in many rural regions. In general, for our district, we would see a decrease in property taxes.
Although I'm sensitive to the fact some urban area property owners would see an increase, I'm also aware, for decades now, other owners — in less populated rural regions, have been paying more. It's time to level the playing field.
Since June of last year, House Republicans have been working on a McCleary funding plan that includes levy reform. Latest reports on the progress of the negotiations indicate this plan is being used as the framework for the solution that will eventually emerge. As the clock winds down on the second special session, I continue to believe a solution for the budget can be found that includes levy reform—not new taxes.
In other news, several of you have contacted me about what's happening at The Evergreen State College. Recently, I introduced House Bill 2223. This bill clarifies the right to free speech, without fear of retaliation, for all students and faculty members on campuses of public institutions of higher education.
Finally, some constituents have contacted me with concerns about the recent announcement from the state Insurance Commissioner that all private insurance companies offering individual health coverage through the state's Affordable Care Act Exchange have withdrawn from Grays Harbor County (the other four counties in our district still have companies offering individual coverage—for now). I am in contact with half a dozen health insurance companies and the Insurance Commissioner about resolving this looming crisis. And, I'm drafting legislation that will help avoid problems like this in the future. Stay tuned, there will be more to come on these important topics in my next email update.
During the special session, I encourage you to reach out to me with your questions, ideas and feedback. My contact information is listed below.
Thank you for the privilege of representing you in Olympia.