Looking ahead in Olympia: Budgets, education funding

OLYMPIA — Legislators from the 24th District had some relatively quiet time last week as House and Senate committees considered bills that had passed from one body to the other.

But that situation is about to change.

Legislators from District 24 — which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County — expect the Capitol to get busier this week.

The Senate is expected to introduce its budget early this week; the House will follow later this week or early next week.

Still on the front burner for the two houses’ budget negotiators is funding for public education.

The state Supreme Court has given the Legislature until Sept. 1, 2018, to comply with its 2012 McCleary decision mandate to provide full funding of public education. A plan must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this session.

Both Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, and Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said it was good news last week that the Office of Financial Management released projections of state revenues through 2019 increasing revenues $571 million, with $313 million more than originally forecast for the 2017-19 budget and $258 million for the current biennial budget through the end of June.

Those numbers, Chapman said, provide a starting point for the most intensive discussions about the budget and education funding.

“It’s good news on a couple of fronts,” Chapman said.

The extra revenue, he said, will make the final discussion about the budget a little bit easier, but he found it unfortunate that much of that revenue growth comes from the Interstate 5 corridor near Seattle.

“We’re still struggling out here,” he said, referring to his district.

Chapman said there is some expectation in the House that new forecasts due in June could bump up the revenue forecasts even more.

“I think we’ll see a lot of discussion about that continuing,” he said.

What he and Van De Wege don’t expect are new taxes to fund public education.

The revenue pizza, Chapman said, will likely be the same. How it’s sliced up to fund public education probably will change — and he doesn’t foresee any growth in taxes.

Chapman said the House might put forward a funding strategy that includes a capital gains tax for public education, but he sees that affecting people in rural areas less than those in the I-5 corridor.

Regardless, the House assistant majority whip does not see enough votes to move even the capital gains tax forward.

“You’ll see two budgets, vastly different than what the governor laid out,” Chapman said. “It’s going to be tough to reconcile the two.”

“I still have a lot of hope we’ll be done [with public education funding] at the end of April.”

If the pie is divided differently, Chapman said he is concerned that one of the cuts will come from Medicaid reimbursement rates.

“I’m very concerned about how Medicaid reimbursement rates are going to affect local hospitals and mental health providers,” Chapman said. “I know Olympic Medical Center is very concerned.”

Reimbursement rate cuts, he said, would “really drill a hole” in local hospital budgets.

He added that legislators from many of Washington’s rural areas share the same concern.

Town hall

Both Chapman and Van De Wege agreed that a telephone town hall went very well last Tuesday.

“It really helped us to see where people are” on the issues, Van De Wege said.

He counted more than 600 callers with more than 250 on the line through the event’s full hour.

Van De Wege said his office counted 78 calls from people who were unable to ask questions during the meeting.

He said many had questions about what will happen to health care as Congress considers dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

There were also questions on a host of local issues, including education, the halibut fishing season and replacement of the Elwha River bridge on U.S. Highway 101.

Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, was not available for comment this week.

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Assistant Managing Editor Mark Swanson can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55450, or [email protected].

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