Dear Friends and Neighbors,
After 193 days in session – the most in state history – the Legislature adjourned.
Budget negotiators deserve kudos for all the long hours and hard work they put in to reach an agreement. Despite fierce opposition from Seattle-area legislators, we were able to defeat the regressive and economically damaging tax increases the governor and House Democrats proposed at the beginning of the legislative session. That means the operating budget did NOT include a capital gains income tax, carbon tax or B&O tax on service businesses.
However, it was a frustrating end to a long session as we still have some critical unfinished business — a fix to the Hirst court order and a capital budget.
I could not support the $43.7 billion two-year state operating budget, Senate Bill 5883. It increases spending by 14 percent over the last biennium, and another 14 percent in the 2019-21 biennium. The four-year outlook shows an increase in spending by about $11.3 billion or nearly 30 percent over four years. I am very concerned about the sustainability of the spending plan.
The state already had $3 billion in additional tax revenue coming in this biennium, yet this budget still relies on tax increases over the next four years. The state should be able to operate with a 6 to 7 percent increase in revenue. If not, let's look at legislation to grow our economy instead of taking more taxpayer dollars. The budget also sweeps several important dedicated resources, including the state's Public Works Assistance Account. Our local governments rely on this account for loans to address water and sewer infrastructure needs.
McCleary education funding plan
While I did not support the operating budget, I did support the Basic Education Act, House Bill 2242. It guarantees ample funding for basic education and will settle the McCleary court case, which has been looming over the Legislature since 2012.
The Basic Education Act passed with broad bipartisan support and increases K-12 education funding by $7.3 billion over the next four years. It restructures the local levy system to ensure our local dollars are used to fund enrichment programs as directed by the court. Under this new funding plan, the state is obligated to fund basic education through the state property tax at a flat rate of $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value. After 2018, most property owners in the 42nd Legislative District will see a property tax reduction and at the same time all Whatcom County schools will see a dramatic increase in basic education compensation. The increase in state funding will offset reductions in local levies. For example, the Lynden School District compensation will increase from $908,074 for the 2017-18 school year to almost $6 million in four years.
Money alone will not guarantee successful outcomes, so I was pleased to see meaningful reforms in the final bill. Transparency, accountability and audits will ensure reporting and compliance of per pupil funding for each grade level in every school district. This education bill includes increased allocations for career and technical education programs (CTE), special education students, the Highly Capable program and the Learning Assistance Program (LAP). It also bumps beginning teacher pay to $40,000, increases teachers' pay 10 percent if they have at least five years of experience, and invests in para-educator professional training. The bill has important salary modifications to discourage teacher migration from poor districts to wealthy districts. Other reforms will address chronic student absenteeism and improve graduation rates.
The final plan to fully fund K-12 education may have taken us into triple overtime, but I am satisfied the Legislature has met our obligation for educating our students, which is the paramount duty of the state. For the first time since the 1980's, more than 50 percent of our operating budget is dedicated to education funding. The 2017 Basic Education Act is historic as it acknowledges the valued work of our teachers and ensures equal educational opportunities for our students no matter the ZIP code of where they live.
Hirst fix needed
It was disappointing leaving Olympia without passing legislation to address the state Supreme Court's Hirst decision. Not having a solution jeopardizes development in Whatcom County and communities throughout Washington state.
Many of us have heard the heart-wrenching stories of Whatcom County families having their dreams, investments, and retirement plans shattered as a result of the court decision. I heard from Bill, who bought 10 acres in the foothills so he and his wife could build a retirement home and have room for their horses. Their property value has dropped drastically because they can't get a permit for a well.
Special interests are flexing their political power in Olympia, and unfortunately, they are winning over good policy. I believe we would have the votes on the Hirst-fix legislation the Senate has passed four times if they would just let us vote on it in the House.
I am frustrated a capital budget has not been passed either, but not having a solution for Hirst is far worse. We cannot tell taxpayers they are not allowed to drill a well or develop their property, then standby while the state passes a construction budget. It is my constitutional duty to fight for our constituents, families and communities on this critical property-rights issue.
It is critical we reach a solution soon. The negative impacts on our real estate market and construction industry could be devastating. Real estate and construction are the backbone of our economy. The Hirst decision will severely limit residential and commercial development in our rural areas. However, even the urban regions will feel the impact. In our property tax system, this will likely cause a tax shift. As land is devalued in rural areas, property owners in our urban regions will end up paying more in taxes to make up the loss.
There is some good news. Lawmakers continue to meet and are hoping to break the stalemate on the Hirst negotiations. I remain hopeful we will have a solution in the near future.
It is great to be back in Whatcom County, especially after such a long session. Please feel free to contact me during the interim. I am interested in ideas you may have for legislation, projects your organization or agency may be working on, and I am available to speak to groups and provide legislative updates. I recently met with manufactured mobile home owners and also took part in a Department of Corrections Ride Along Program (photo). You can also contact me if you need assistance dealing with a state agency or issue. I look forward to seeing you.
It is an honor to represent the great people of Whatcom County.
Luanne Van Werven