All eyes on funding in state legislative debates

OLYMPIA — Legislators in the 24th District are busy with committee meetings and votes on many issues, but the focus is pretty much on funding basic education.

A legislative task force charged with figuring out how the state can meet the requirements of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary Decision produced no recommendations after failing to reach consensus.

Democrats on the task force have said they want to start by spending $1.6 billion in the next two years to fund salaries for new teachers and provide relief for districts that rely on property taxes.

State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, who chairs the Capital Budget Committee, has already introduced HB-1075 for the state’s capital spending budget. He said he currently spends two to three hours a day in meetings with staff about budget matters that include funds for schools.

“Right now, we’re trying to define the box — what money’s available,” said Tharinger, who represents Legislative District 24, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County, with Rep. Mike Chapman and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege.

He expects both the budgets for capital spending and general operations will be “heavily impacted” by public schools this year. Spending on schools could make up as much as half of the capital budget, he said.

Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said Democrats have created their general spending proposal for education and are waiting on the House Republicans to make theirs so the two sides can start negotiations.

Besides the full funding of education required by the McCleary decision, Chapman said the House is scheduled to vote today on HB-1059, which would extend the current “lid” or limit on school district levies past 2017.

According to the bill, the state recognizes that the current system of school funding is “in transition during 2017, with the state moving toward full funding.”

To promote the districts’ ability to plan for the future, the Legislature intends to extend its current statutory policies on levies through 2018.

Without passage, Chapman said, school districts will be forced to consider staff layoffs and class sizes will become larger.

Steelhead fisheries

Van De Wege, D-Sequim, introduced a bill last week aimed at protecting the state’s steelhead industry, particularly on the Olympic Peninsula’s West End.

His bill, S-5302, would create a pilot program in which steelhead fishing guides would be required to purchase one of a limited number of tags before showing anyone where they’re biting, Van De Wege said, adding that it would not affect sport fishermen at all.

The money raised through the program would be used to protect steelhead fisheries, he said.

Van De Wege said the rationale behind S-5302 is two-fold: First, it would reduce overcrowding on the rivers where people fish for steelhead.

It would also protect communities where fishing guides live, such as Forks.

Too often, he said, guides from out of the state show up with gear and boats and take work away from the people in those communities.

The West End, said Van De Wege, is “becoming a trophy steelhead fishing area” and the pilot tag program would help protect the industry in the area.

Death penalty repeal

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson last week introduced a proposal to abolish the death penalty in the state.

Inslee imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2014, but repeal bills have stalled in the Legislature.

Van De Wege said although he has issues with the way the death penalty is carried out in other states, “for Washington state, I support the death penalty.”

The state, he said, should leave the question for “jurors to recommend, a tool we should allow jurors to have.”

Chapman — who was a Clallam County commissioner before his election to the Legislature last year — said that death penalty cases are a “very expensive and an incredible drain on resources” for local governments.

Clallam County, he said, has had instances where it has been forced to budget $1 million to cover not just the expenses of prosecutors in drawn-out criminal cases, but also that of public defenders.

“I think it’s time to have that conversation” about repealing the death penalty, he said, adding that he believes the measure will have bipartisan support.

He also said that if the measure isn’t passed in this legislative session, he could see it becoming a state ballot initiative.

Mental health care

Both houses are looking at changes for funding mental health care, Van De Wege said.

“I know we’re going to make substantial changes,” he said.

Western State Hospital is overburdened by patients who do not need a high level of treatment, said the state senator.

When Western State is short of space, too often people in crisis end up in community hospitals such as those in Port Angeles, Forks or Port Townsend, he said, and that is a very expensive option.

Along with Van De Wege, Tharinger noted that there are discussions about funding not just Western State Hospital but also other options besides local community services.

Creative districts

Chapman said he has signed onto HB-1183, which would help downtown districts become eligible for federal funding by allowing them to create “creative districts” to host festivals, concerts and art walks.

The new districts would make towns eligible for grants to support not just the arts but ancillary businesses, such as restaurants.

In the 24th District, Chapman said, it’s estimated that 2,400 jobs depend on the arts, which he called a “significant economic driver.”

________

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