EYE ON OLYMPIA: Lawmakers eye struggle for education funding

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege

OLYMPIA — As state lawmakers enter the second week of the legislative session, all eyes are on them as the state waits for progress on full funding for public schools under the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

Lawmakers are working to comply with the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling requiring them to fully fund the state’s basic education system, but are currently being held in contempt by the court for their lack of progress.

The court has said that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018, to fully fund education, but that the details of how to do that — as well as how lawmakers will pay for it — must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

Senate Republicans and House Democrats will release their own proposals in the coming months. A task force charged with coming up with recommendations for the current session failed to reach agreement.

Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries, about $3.9 billion of a total $7 billion.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said he expects work on funding the McCleary requirements is “going to be a fairly large struggle.”

“We have a large obligation there,” he said.

Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, said the task force is still working on the McCleary question and he believes all four caucuses — Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate — will have a voice.

Already, Van De Wege sees a tough hurdle in a rules change approved by the majority Republicans.

Before the start of the joint session, the Senate approved a rule change that could make any action on new taxes more difficult.

New rule

The new rule, said Van De Wege, requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate before any tax bill can be considered for a final vote.

A similar rule was struck down by the court in the past as unconstitutional, said the state senator.

Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, could not be reached for comment.

Van De Wege, Chapman and Tharinger represent Legislative District 24, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

Telecommunications

Van De Wege has signed on as a secondary sponsor for several bills so far in this session.

S-5139 would allow public utility districts, such as those in Clallam and Jefferson counties, to provide telecommunications service — internet and phone service, for instance.

“That’s been in the works for a while,” said Van De Wege, who said he recognized that there are “a lot of areas” on the Olympic Peninsula that do not have adequate telecommunications coverage.

Main Street funding

Van De Wege also has signed onto S-5135, which would increase the tax credits available to help fund downtown Main Street programs.

In the 24th District, both Port Townsend and Port Angeles have Main Street programs.

The funding the programs receive helps to pay for sidewalks, lighting, streetscape improvements, tourism and promotions.

As introduced, the measure would increase the amount of tax credits the state could issue in support of Main Street programs, Van De Wege said.

The programs, he said, “make downtowns survive” and “really helps small businesses.”

Free and fair elections

Van De Wege also signed onto Senate Joint Memorial 8000, which would ask the U.S. Congress to call a limited convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution for the purpose of proposing a free and fair elections amendment.

The Senate’s State Government Committee is considering the measure, which says that the removal of election contribution restrictions following the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court “has resulted in the unjust influence of powerful economic forces, which have supplanted the will of the people by undermining our ability to choose political leadership, write our own laws and determine the fate of our state.”

“Hopefully, Congress will take it up,” said Van De Wege, and although a number of states are considering or have passed like measures, he is not hopeful it will go anywhere.

“It’s possible something could happen, but I don’t expect it will,” he said.

Elwha River bridge

In the House, Chapman sits on the Transportation Committee, which received a briefing last week from Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar about the U.S. Highway 101 bridge over the Elwha River and other needs.

The Transportation Department, said Chapman, is dedicated to the idea of making the bridge safe and maintaining it until a replacement can be designed, funded and constructed.

Chapman is confident that the Legislature will find funding for the bridge replacement in this session.

Pot, tobacco sales

In terms of legislation, Chapman has signed onto a bill that would give municipalities greater authority on where and how many marijuana retailers can be located in a community.

He is signed onto a bill that would raise the minimum age for the sale of tobacco products, including “vaping” items, to 21.

Chapman argues that tobacco that finds its way into the hands of minors is frequently purchased for them by people at the current minimum age of 18 and that raising the age will make that less likely.

He added that the measure is backed by the Clallam County Board of Health.

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

Rep. Mike Chapman

Rep. Mike Chapman