The Legislature began a 30-day special session last Monday. Budget negotiators in the House and Senate were unfortunately unable to reach an agreement on a final two-year operating budget. The majority parties, Senate Republicans and House Democrats, passed their respective operating budget proposals out of each chamber along party-line votes during the regular session. Budget negotiators are working off of those proposals to reach a final operating budget agreement.
The two budgets proposals are very different and the reason why we are in an overtime session. To address the McCleary court decision, both sides want to increase K-12 education funding significantly, but Democrats insist on raising taxes by nearly $8 billion. Republicans are looking to reform our state property tax system to make it more equitable and fair.
The Democrat plan does not fundamentally reform the levy system. Reliance on local levy dollars is what put the state in the education funding position we are in now. A final plan must not rely on local dollars or we will find ourselves in a McCleary 2.0 situation.
Regarding the overall budget, House Democrats want to increase state spending by 34 percent over four years, which would include their proposed $8 billion in taxes I mentioned earlier. Our current operating budget spends $38 billion. Yet, under the Democrat plan, their budget would be more than $51 billion by 2019-21. That is simply not sustainable.
One of the major budget sticking points is that they will not vote on their $8 billion tax package. This complicates budget negotiations. It is difficult to negotiate a budget if you cannot show you have the revenue to pay for it.
Two House Republican legislators, Reps. Paul Harris and David Taylor, are directly involved in negotiations. They are at the table offering solutions that are positive for students, school districts and hard-working taxpayers. Once the education funding piece is finalized, I believe the rest of the operating budget should fall into place. The education portion is such a big part of the puzzle, it is difficult to negotiate a final spending plan until it is done. In the end, I am hopeful for a bipartisan solution that does not adversely impact taxpayers.
The other critical issue that remains unresolved is a solution on the Hirst decision. I have been part of the Hirst workgroup led by Rep. Buys. Given the importance of this issue, we will keep the pressure on as we negotiate a solution in the special session. The impacts on Whatcom County and across the state are immense.
The decision is already causing devastating financial and emotional hardship for some in Whatcom County and economic losses could be substantial for rural landowners. The decision will have far-reaching implications for the entire state, urban and rural, east and west. The Whatcom County assessor estimates $271 million in property value loss in our county alone if we do not fix Hirst. We are working diligently to reach a solution. I strongly believe we cannot leave Olympia without one.
The women of the House Republican Caucus.
An important aspect of being a state legislator is advocating for local construction projects. The state's capital budget contains those bricks and mortar type projects for our K-12 schools, colleges, state prisons, local governments and community projects where funding may be difficult to come by.
I am very excited about what is in the House capital budget for Whatcom County, such as making Ferndale's Pioneer Village ADA accessible. It is home to the largest collection of cedar cabins in the world. These cabins are not replicas; they are authentic and have been well-preserved over time. Unfortunately, for many families and individuals it is very difficult to visit this historic site. For much of year, the village grounds are muddy, making mobility impossible for those using wheelchairs, walkers and strollers. The capital budget funds will provide for the installation of ADA compliant sidewalks in Pioneer Village. Everyone should be able to enjoy our backyard treasure.
We have also secured funding in the House plan for the Sylvia Center for the Arts. Downtown Bellingham has a vibrant and growing art community. As a newly appointed member of the Washington State Arts Commission, I am excited to help the Sylvia Center for the Arts redevelop a long-vacant industrial building into a new art center in Bellingham. The new art center will contain a 160-seat mainstage theater, a gallery, and a dance floor. Additionally, there will be classroom and rehearsal space for aspiring and performing artists. This project would be a boon to our community. It helps not only our artists but our local economy, as well.
There are other pieces to the capital budget proposal that would benefit Whatcom County. Capital budget projects approved for our district are the direct result of teamwork and effort. We are working with the Senate to reconcile any differences and pass an agreed upon plan during the special session. However, there is also speculation, the capital budget may be tied to getting a Hirst solution passed. Obviously there are many moving parts to the extra session.
Mt. Baker School District FFA members.
The transportation budget also has a project important to our area, the Lynden Collapsed Culvert. Many of you may know that a culvert collapsed in Lynden during February's excessive snow and rainstorms that wiped out a section of N. 8th street. As a response, Rep. Buys and I have worked to allocate emergency funds to repair the sinkhole, as well as funds to continue the realignment of Pepin Creek. This is critical. Funds for this project will redirect water flow away from our roads with the aim to prevent future flooding and provide reliable fish passage. The transportation budget passed both chambers and is awaiting the governor's signature.
I was also very pleased to see Blaine's exit 274 interchange project awarded $12,100,000 in the final transportation budget. The public benefits for this project will be substantial for economic development and improving freight mobility. Blaine has so much to offer by way of local shops and a beautiful waterfront and a southbound off ramp will provide access for thousands of travelers to stop and visit Blaine.
The governor signs Rep. Van Werven's House Bill 1375.
Transparency for textbook costs
On another positive note, my bill to add some transparency to textbook costs in community and technical colleges has been signed by the governor. House Bill 1375 had strong bipartisan support, passing both the House and Senate unanimously. Our local students' from Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College helped this legislation pass because they will directly benefit from this bill.
With the special session, it has not been decided when our interim officially begins, but please remember, during the interim my work as a legislator is not over. I represent you year round.
I will be touring classrooms, meeting with local officials, speaking to groups and organizations. If you have a legislative issue or an idea, please contact my office to set up a meeting. I look forward to seeing you around the 42nd District.
In Olympia or at home in Whatcom County, I am honored to serve as your representative.
Luanne Van Werven