EYE ON OLYMPIA: Sen. Van De Wege criticizes Senate GOP budget

OLYMPIA — The Senate has passed a $43 billion two-year budget plan that includes a statewide property tax to address funding for public education while cutting services in other areas.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, voted against the measure, SB 5048, which passed the Republican-led Senate narrowly along party lines on a 25-24 vote early Friday after a multi-hour, middle-of-the-night debate.

Van De Wege is one of three District 24 legislators, along with Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, and Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim. District 24 encompasses Clallam and Jefferson counties as well as part of Grays Harbor County.

The Senate plan devotes an additional $1.8 billion to education to address the state Supreme Court mandate that the state come up with a plan to fully fund public education before the end of this legislative session. These funds would be in addition to $2 billion already set aside for education since the McCleary ruling.

The plan rejects Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal from December, which sought education funding by increasing business taxes, instituting a carbon tax and levying a 7.9 percent capital gains tax on stocks and bonds above a certain threshold.

Republicans tried to force Senate Democrats to take a vote on the capital gains tax after passage of the budget, making a motion to pull that bill to the floor just after midnight. The motion ultimately failed.

2019 implementation

Under the Senate spending plan, much of education would be paid for under a new state property tax that would replace local levies. It would be transitioned in next year and be implemented Jan. 1, 2019.

It is expected that levies would rise in some places, such as Seattle, and decrease in others at $1.55 per $1,000 of assessed value.

In the first year of the Republican plan, school districts would be funded solely by the state property tax.

In the second year, which would be 2021, districts would be allowed to propose local levies of up to 10 percent above the state property tax.

According to the Senate Democrats’ Communications Office, if Port Angeles voters were to approve such a 10 percent hike, it would add about 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to the rate, an estimated $97 more on the average property in 2021. In Port Townsend, a similar 10 percent hike would raise the rate $1.20 per $1,000 in 2021, about $275 more a year on the average property.

Van De Wege took issue with the Senate Republican plan in a news release Friday.

He acknowledged that the plan would increase education funding by $3.7 billion over four years but took issue with shifting of that money from other services.

The Republican budget, he said, would take $34 million from the state’s Disaster Response Account, which is devoted to droughts, floods, wildfires and other natural disasters, to pay for education.

It would also permanently redirect $398 million in the state’s Public Works Assistance Account, which currently helps municipalities to fund infrastructure projects at low interest rates.

Under the Senate plan, said Van De Wege, 71 school districts would receive a total of $30 million less in education funding.

He did not think any of those 71 are in District 24; many would not receive any additional funding.

Van De Wege did not think the Republican plan puts any “new” money into the schools. He did not think it would satisfy the Supreme Court and its McCleary decision.

While about a dozen of more than 20 amendments to the Senate plan were rejected, Van De Wege managed to see one that he sponsored adopted.

His amendment would have the state Department of Fish and Wildlife “initiate research with recreational fishing stakeholders so that fishing guide and non-guided angler data is analyzed to evaluate changes in the structure of guide licensing.”

Under the amendment, Fish and Wildlife also would convene stakeholder group meetings in the North Olympic Peninsula and Klickitat River areas, as well other areas of the state, to gather a summary of its findings.

House budget

Democrats in the House are expected to introduce their revenue package today. They have not yet said what taxes they would propose to meet the education funding mandate.

The house funding bill is likely to include new revenues, said Chapman, and likely to look “vastly different” than the Senate Republican plan.

He added that it would not include many cuts like the Senate proposal.

Reached via phone Saturday, Tharinger said he did not expect the House and Senate would reach agreement on the general operating budget or public education funding in the current 105-day legislative session that ends April 23. A special session will likely be required.

Capital budget

Tharinger, who chairs the House Capital Budget Committee, said that unlike the general operating budget, capital needs are negotiated on a bipartisan basis, largely incorporating bonds for schools, mental health facilities and natural resources.

He expects the capital budget to hit the House floor about a week from today.

The construction of a new Elwha River bridge for U.S. Highway 101, said Tharinger, has bipartisan support in the Transportation budget and he does not foresee a problem.

Rural jobs bill

Last Wednesday, Chapman introduced HB 2177, which is designed to create jobs in rural counties with persistently high unemployment.

The bill would offer a free year of college tuition for high-demand fields in small counties with populations of 80,000 or below, unemployment rates higher than 8 percent or a median wage of under $18 an hour.

Under the bill, residents of Clallam and Grays Harbor counties would be eligible. According to December 2016 figures supplied by Chapman, Clallam has 73,410 residents, an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent and a median wage of $18.52. Grays Harbor County has 72,820 residents, an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent and a median wage of $18.81.

Jefferson County has an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent.

“This is about revitalizing timber country and farm country,” Chapman said. “Research tells us one year of education beyond high school is the tipping point for people to get family-wage jobs. We also know businesses need workers with advanced skills.”

The bill is currently in discussion in the Higher Education Committee and not likely to go much further in this session.

Chapman said Saturday that he and co-sponsor Rep. Mike Steele, D-Chelan, plan to hold meetings in each other’s districts in the coming year and meet with higher education officials.

The representative said the cost of the program is pegged at $750,000 and is considered one of many rural development initiatives the state funds.

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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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