By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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“The good news is this isn't really a partisan issue,” Rep. Kevin Van De Wege told the chamber crowd at its weekly luncheon at SunLand Golf & Country Club.
Sequim Democrats Van De Wege and Rep. Steve Tharinger — both of whom represent the district that includes Clallam and Jefferson counties — fielded questions after giving updates of a “not-so-special session” of the state Legislature that did not approve a new budget until the day the past biennial budget expired.
“We were getting close to shutting down the state,” Tharinger said.
He blamed the Republican-controlled Senate for stalling negotiations over the $32 billion budget through the regular session and nearly two full special sessions.
“Every one of those 25 folks had a say in how things went because they needed every one of those votes,” Tharinger said. “They didn't get it together.”
With a decision by the state Supreme Court that the Legislature must devote more than $1 billion more toward basic education came such new initiatives as funding for all-day kindergarten.
Many of those in attendance asked why, despite the Legislature's decision to provide funding for all-day kindergarten, the Sequim School District decided not to offer it for the upcoming school year.
“It's not about coming up with the money. The money's there,” Van De Wege said, adding that the program is “something I was very excited about.”
Sequim School District Superintendent Kelly Shea, who was in the audience, told the crowd the district opted not to offer all-day kindergarten classes because the funding it had would not have been enough to establish the program at both Helen Haller and Greywolf elementary schools.
The state offered Sequim $220,000 for all-day kindergarten, Shea said.
That would have barely provided the $210,000 cost of hiring three full-time teachers at Helen Haller, he said, leaving the district on its own to hire three more teachers at the other school.
He added that the district does not now have space for all-day kindergarten classes and would have had to buy portable classrooms, furniture and materials with only $10,000 in aid from the state.
“We would have had to start the school year with kids having classes in the gymnasium,” Shea said.
More funding is expected to be available in the next biennial budget, Shea said.
That is expected to allow the district the funding to implement all-day kindergarten at both elementary schools and the time to provide more space.
“We are one district. We will have the funding, we will have the space, we will have the teachers in two years,” Shea said.
Tharinger said he was happy the Legislature did not have to cut more funding from higher education in the 2013-2014 budget.
“This was the first time since I've been in the Legislature — since 2008 — that we didn't kill higher education,” he said.
Stable state funding means state colleges and universities did not have to increase tuition, he said.
Van De Wege added that University of Washington and Evergreen State College officials expect tuition to remain stable over the next two school years under the new budget.
Coming up, Tharinger has his sights set on eliminating tax “loopholes” for bottled water, drug distribution and the high-tech sector, among other things.
The state, he said, now offers $7.2 billion in tax exemptions while taking in $5.6 billion in tax revenue.
“That's the kind of work I'll be doing moving forward,” he said.
He noted a special tax exemption on hog fuel but said the industry is highly competitive, and keeping the tax break in place will allow the five pulp plants in the 24th District to continue to operate and employ more than 1,500 people.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.