All eyes are on the presidential inauguration. A single presidential tweet can capture the heart or chill the bones of the entire nation. But even as attention, debate, and protest continues to center on national politics, the state legislature remains the place where many of the policies emerge that dramatically impact our lives.
And Donald Trump won't change that.
Once again, the Washington State Legislature is overshadowed by McCleary, the state Supreme Court case concluding that the state had unconstitutionally underfunded basic education. This time, the debate over what to do about it has started to move from theory and philosophy to cold, hard numbers. So let's check in with our governor and a few of our local legislators to find out their goals.
Gov. Jay Inslee: (Finally) fund education
"Our state's founders chose education as our paramount duty. Not roads or railroads. Not jails," the governor said in his inaugural address this year. "They chose schools. So should we."
Before the election, Inslee was clear that he thought new revenue was needed to fund education, but he'd been famously unclear about where the new revenue would come from, other than closing a few unpopular tax loopholes. But after he won re-election, that clarity came quickly: A slew of tax increases, from capital gains taxes to carbon taxes to B&O taxes. His budget, however, also proposes reducing property taxes for 75 percent of individuals and businesses.
Sen. Andy Billig (3rd District): Untangle the McCleary mess and slow down oil trains
Billig was on the education task force that spent months trying to solve McCleary, only to come to a stalemate.
There's a secret. It's not so much that education is underfunded — though in some areas, like special education, Billig says it clearly is. It's that the funding for basic education is happening at the local level, through levies, instead of at the state level, as the state constitution calls for.
Democrats on the committee actually came up with a plan — different than the governor's — to decrease class sizes, increase teacher salaries, and shift the burden away from local governments. Yes, it would cost $7.3 billion through 2021. But it was actually a specific plan.
"Unfortunately, only the Democrats on the committee came up with recommendations," Billig says. The Republicans didn't offer anything other than a vague list of "guiding principles," making negotiations impossible.
Meanwhile, Billig is also pushing a bill that would allow individual cities or a state commission to reduce the speed limit on trains with dangerous cargo — like explosive oil.
"I believe it's compatible with federal law, and most importantly it's essential to the safety of people in Spokane," Billig says. "The magnitude of damage done for high speed versus the low speed is significantly different. A slow speed gives a train and engineers more reaction time to slow and stop the train if they've seen the hazard."
And that, Billig believes, could save lives.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli (3rd District): Name a highway, track child fitness, and address income discrimination for renters
Riccelli has already pushed a bill to name Highway 395 after former U.S. Speaker of the House Tom Foley. He's also introduced a bill to require school districts — already required to mandate 100 minutes of physical education a week in grades K-8 — to actually report details on how they're doing it back to the state. But perhaps the heaviest lift is a tweak to laws regarding low-income housing.
"I'll be bringing forward a bill for anti-discrimination for income source," Riccelli says. Some landlords require tenants to pay three months of rent up front — making it impossible for those who rely on monthly housing vouchers or unemployment checks to make rent.
"Some folks are making judgments about folks because they're on subsidized housing or unemployment," Riccelli says. He wants to work with Republicans and the Washington Landlord Association to find a solution.
Rep. Timm Ormsby (3rd District): Fund education without cutting social services
Ormsby has generally been slightly to the left of other Eastern Washington Democrats. So when he examines the state's education funding crisis, he wants to make absolutely sure that the solution doesn't mean slicing away at other important government functions.
"We have moral obligations to maintain the safety net," Ormsby says. "We're not going to rob Peter to educate Paul. We are not going to decimate our social safety net structure, just to meet that one constitutional requirement."
He's also looking at introducing a bill that would establish clear guidelines for exactly how much workers on public work projects should be paid.
"Government should not use government resources to drive down the wages of taxpayers," Ormsby says.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner (6th District): Continue to fund the WSU medical school and protect higher education
"My goals are to fund the [new Washington State University] medical school and make sure we can protect higher education," Baumgartner says.
This week, he says he also plans to introduce statewide "ban the box" legislation. "Banning the box" generally prevents most employers from immediately asking about criminal history on the first step of a job application — thereby making it easier for felons to find work and become productive members of society.
Rep. Mike Volz (6th District): Stop tax increases and help treasurers work together
The freshman Republican legislator landed on the Appropriations and Education committees, the two committees most involved with addressing education funding, which Volz calls the "800-pound gorilla in the room."
But he's wary of the governor's slate of proposed tax increases.
"It appears there's an appetite for tax increases," Volz says in an email. "Many of these tax proposals stifle business growth."
Volz, who was Spokane County's chief deputy treasurer, also says he plans to push bills to make it easier for county treasurers to partner together.
"Part of our job in Olympia is to make government more efficient and effective," Volz says. "It would save money, be more efficient and just makes sense for certain, neighboring counties throughout our state."
Sen. Mike Padden (4th District): Increase Punishment for repeat drunk drivers and property crime offenders
Padden, a former judge, heads up the Senate Law and Justice Committee. On five different occasions, he's pushed a bill to make getting a fourth DUI a felony in Washington.
"We have the weakest felony DUI law in the country," Padden says. This year, he plans to push that bill again, and hopes that it doesn't die in the House. He'll also try to tackle Spokane's serious property crime problem by increasing sentences on repeat property crime offenders who show little sign of reforming.
He says he's also supportive of a proposed pilot project to increase supervision — currently essentially nonexistent — for some property crime offenders in Spokane.
"It's still no guarantee, with all the demands on money," he says. "[But] I doubt anybody is going to object to the policy." ♦