As Washington lawmakers head to Olympia, education and water issues top their lists

Legislators have their work cut out for them this session.
Legislators have their work cut out for them this session.

As 2017 comes to a close, lawmakers are already gearing up for a short legislative session in Olympia that will be busier than normal, with continued work on basic education funding, a statewide construction budget that didn't pass this year, and water-rights issues at the top of a long list of priorities for many.

While most have plans for legislation covering a wide variety of issues, here's a preview of what's likely to dominate the narrative during the 60-day session, which starts Jan. 8.


By the end of the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers were fairly confident they had finally done enough to comply with the Washington State Supreme Court's 2012 McCleary ruling by restructuring the way that schools are funded and providing billions of dollars in additional education money.

They'd agreed to shrink class sizes for kindergarten through third grade to no more than 17 students, implement full-day kindergarten, raise teacher salaries, and reduce reliance on local levies to pay for the changes.

But after looking over the plan this October, the Supreme Court justices ruled that while lawmakers had finally met the state's constitutional requirement to fully fund K-12 education, the plan won't meet the state's self-imposed deadline of Sept. 1, 2018, for implementation.

That means lawmakers will return to Olympia tasked with speeding up the timeline for the changes, which as of now wouldn't take effect in time for the 2018-2019 school year. In the meantime, the legislature remains held in contempt, and fines of $100,000 per day continue to stack up.

In his proposed 2018 supplemental operating budget, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed another $1 billion to pay for the educational upgrades in time to meet the deadline.

"This is very achievable, it is very necessary," Inslee said while announcing his supplemental budget plan on Dec. 14. "And I want to reiterate, the legislature, on a bipartisan basis, were able to do really heavy lifting to go as far as they have, with billions of dollars for education. Now we have to have the crowning achievement to that."


While lawmakers passed the biennial operating budget this summer, the more than $4 billion capital budget was held up as it became entangled with legislation tied to a water case known as the Hirst decision.

"The capital budget and the Hirst water fix are probably two of the top priorities to take care of," says Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. "Those are the two most important statewide issues we need to deal with, and hopefully early in session."

With Hirst, a case out of Whatcom County, the state Supreme Court held in late 2016 that the county couldn't issue building permits unless those applying could prove their well wouldn't disrupt other people's water rights, or deplete rivers in areas with instream flow rules. That seemed to set precedent for other counties, including Spokane, and has disrupted rural development.

Senate Republicans, who still held the majority in the Senate this year, said that a Hirst "fix" would need to pass before they'd let the bipartisan capital budget come to a floor vote. By the end of a third special session, neither were ultimately addressed.

Separating the unrelated capital budget from the Hirst legislation could be somewhat easier for Democrats, as they now control the Senate, Billig says.

"The capital budget creates construction jobs in the short term and the projects that are built are the infrastructure of our economy for the future," Billig says. "Now that there's going to be a Democratic majority, we're hoping to pass it."

Inslee will be pushing for that to happen.

"The governor has said very clearly that passage needs to be the first order of business when the legislature convenes in January," says Tara Lee, deputy communications director for Inslee's office, by email. "The governor is very concerned about the projects and the thousands of jobs throughout the state that they support."

As for Hirst, Billig says he agrees that a responsible compromise will be necessary, so "that wells and development will continue, but with some oversight and interest in protecting the current property and water rights holders."

In the meantime, as counties wait for a statewide policy change, Spokane County recently announced its own fix for rural development in the Little Spokane watershed. The county, with the state Department of Ecology, has set up a water bank that will hold existing senior water rights in order to guarantee enough water for residential development, which has been halted for more than a year. Applications in that watershed are now open again.


Those three items only scratch the surface of state and local priorities for the session.

Inslee also wants to include additional funding for mental health and tools for fighting the opioid crisis.

Billig hopes to pass campaign finance transparency, as well as a voting access bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they get their driver's license.

Among other things, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, is interested in helping medical students with their loans in exchange for them working as primary-care providers in rural and underserved communities, and also wants to ensure insurance access in counties that don't have options on the exchange.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, has prefiled bills that would raise the amount of claims allowed to be heard in small claims court from $5,000 to $10,000, change the law regarding illegal exposure of a dependent child or adult to controlled substances, and ensure pretrial release programs protect the public from harm.

Spokane Regional Health District's Board of Health wants the smoking age to be raised to 21, Spokane Valley may lobby for transportation projects, and Spokane City Council may push for a new mental health facility, a way to address foreclosed homes, and ask for more funding to fight property crime. ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...