EYE ON OLYMPIA: School funding, levy cliff remain top issues for legislators

State Rep. Mike Chapman

State Rep. Mike Chapman

OLYMPIA — The House has approved its long-awaited public education funding proposal with a 50-47 vote.

Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, explained that the bill was designed to essentially set the definitions of the basic education that the state Supreme Court has mandated the Legislature fund.

Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system. The court has set a deadline of Sept. 1, 2018, to fully fund education, but has said that the details of how to do that must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

Interviewed Friday, Chapman said the bill was similar to walking through a home design store and deciding what elements a shopper wants in a new kitchen.

Now comes the hard part, he said: deciding what the state can afford and what lawmakers will be willing to compromise on.

The Republican-led Senate has already passed its funding plan, which would replace local school levies with a statewide uniform rate earmarked for schools. The House plan, passed Wednesday, would lower the local levy rate but not eliminate it completely.

The two plans also differ when it comes to teacher salaries — how much to start and how much they should rise.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said it was “good the House passed what they passed.”

The two majority parties — Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House — are now evaluating the proposals “and what they can get,” he added.

In the end, Chapman said he expects the funding bill will have bipartisan support.

“On the final package, it comes down to key leadership,” he said. “Committee chairs work on a final solution. This was a first step.”

He added, “We have to make sure the Supreme Court accepts our solution … and that the governor will sign it.”

This week will bring a deadline before which all policy bills have to be approved on the floor of the House or Senate and sent to the other body for consideration.

Levy cliff

In the short term, the House has passed an extension of one year for school districts to continue collecting higher local levies in response to the “levy cliff.” The Senate’s levy cliff proposal is part of its overall education funding package.

The levy cliff refers to school districts facing a reduction in the amount they can collect through local levies starting next year.

Van De Wege stressed that the levy cliff issue must be resolved quickly or else school districts face issuing pink slips as they plan their budgets.

Without the extension, districts will soon have to cut their budgets, he said. For example, in Port Angeles, the cuts will add up to $412,000. For Port Townsend, the total is even larger at $487,000.

In addition to education funding discussions, Legislative District 24 lawmakers voted on a number of measures last week, including:

Election-year restrictions

Both Chapman and Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, voted in favor last Wednesday for HB-2106, which would set new election-year restrictions on state legislators. The measure passed 96-1 in the House and has been sent to the Senate.

With some exceptions, state officers and employees are prohibited from using state agency facilities and resources to assist with any election campaign. Legislators are specifically restricted from certain activities during the period starting Dec. 1 of the year before a legislator’s general election through Nov. 30 after the election.

In addition, legislators may not update their official legislative web pages between June 30 and Nov. 15 of their election year. During the restriction period, legislators may not send constituents letters or other literature by mail or email at public expense. However, legislators can mail two general newsletters to constituents before and after the regular legislative session. Legislators also can send mail and email to individual constituents who request information during the legislative session.

The bill would move the restriction period from Nov. 30 to the date of the general election, generally the second Tuesday in November.

Disqualification of judges

Chapman and Tharinger voted in favor last Monday on HB-1378, which would change the terminology relating to the disqualification of judges and set rules for that process. The measure passed 97-0 and has been sent to the Senate.

If a person who is a party or attorney in an action or proceeding in superior court believes that he or she cannot have a fair and impartial trial before the superior court judge assigned to the case, the person can file a motion and affidavit of prejudice to establish that the judge should be disqualified.

A judge who has been disqualified is prohibited from hearing the case, and the case will be transferred to another judge from a different department in the same court, a visiting judge or another court.

The measure would set new terminology for the disqualification process.

Sexual assault orders

Chapman and Tharinger both voted in favor last Monday on HB-1384, which would revise the provisions governing the term of a sexual assault protection order and standards for renewals, changes and terminations of the orders. The measure passed 76-21 and has been sent to the Senate.

The measure would eliminate the two-year maximum term for a sexual assault protection order. Under the bill, the order would be for a fixed period of time or be permanent.

In determining the circumstances for a renewal, the court may consider only factors that address whether the respondent is likely to engage in or attempt contact with the petitioner when the order expires.

Chapman said lawmakers heard “compelling testimony from victims” of sexual assault.

He said they understood that going back to court to seek a protection order renewal can be difficult because the perpetrator has the right to be present at any hearing. The bill would reduce or eliminate these instances.

DUI felonies

Van De Wege voted in favor Thursday on SB-5037, which would make a licensed driver’s fourth driving under the influence offense a felony. The measure passed 41-0 and has been sent to the House.

The bill would allow prosecutors to charge drivers with felony DUI if the person’s criminal record includes three or more prior offenses instead of four or more within 10 years. A felony DUI would mean that a person with three prior DUI offenses and no other criminal history would be subject to a standard sentencing range of 13 to 17 months incarceration.

Human trafficking

Van De Wege voted in favor Thursday on SB-5272, which would allow victims of sex trafficking to have convictions of prostitution removed in Washington state. The measure passed unanimously and was sent to the House.

The measure would allow victims of trafficking, prostitution or commercial sex abuse of a minor to have a related prostitution record vacated if he or she can prove that it was the result of trafficking.