Marijuana, schools and roads. Those will be the three big issues facing state legislators when they convene the 2015 session Monday in Olympia.
It’s expected to be a thorny one, partly because voters tossed a wrench into state politics when they voted in November to shrink class sizes without identifying a way to pay for it. Even without that added element, lawmakers already were on the hook to comply with state Supreme Court orders to boost school funding.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenging session,” Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said Tuesday. “Those two things really threw a monkey wrench into things.”
In addition, finding ways to finance and allocate transportation improvements is always contentious. Every region of the state wants its “fair” share of the pie, and Cowlitz County has a big stake in the outcome.
So the stage is set for a contentious and painful session. Here’s a look at how some of the three top issues could play out:
Legislators last session failed to comply with the 3-year-old McCleary decision, in which the state Supreme Court mandated improved funding of basic education. In addition, implementing the class size measure (Initiative 1351) will cost $4.7 billion during the next four years.
Legislators for the 19th and 20th districts — which include Cowlitz, Lewis, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties — say the state just can’t afford to comply with McCleary and I-1351 without identifying some new revenue sources.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has proposed some pricey tax increases, but the Republican-controlled Legislature is cold to them.
“The governor is throwing all kinds of revenue ideas against the wall to see what sticks. He’s got cap and trade, bottled water, cigarettes, property tax, there’s capital gains. There’s everything and anything in there,” Takko said.
State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, a perennial opponent of tax increases, is repeating the same refrain this year. The state has $3 billion in additional revenue for the next two-year budget cycle, and that should be enough, he said.
“I think we’ve got to figure out a way to make our budget align with our revenue, rather than trying to increase taxes to do everything the Legislature wants to do,” Orcutt said by phone Friday.
Takko, too, acknowledged that Washington voters, especially during the past few years, have rejected many kinds of tax and fee increases. And state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said his party isn’t keen on tax hikes either.
“Tax votes are one of the hardest things you ever do as a legislator,” Hatfield said Thursday.
Watch for another possible legislative fix: An attempt to invalidate I-1351 because, contrary to state law, it does not identify how it will be paid for. Takko said lawmakers are discussing the idea that the ballot measure should be declared null and void because it doesn’t include a funding plan. But the courts may not agree, he said.
Takko and state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, say the answer may be more about postponing the measure, not defeating it.
“I think we are going to have to delay parts of 1351 and focus on paying for the McCleary basic education,” Blake said.
Along with the existing education measures, Blake wants to see the state allocate more funds for early education.
“I think those kinds of investments pay off in 10 or 20 years but I really believe in pre–K,” Blake said by phone Wednesday.
When Gov. Inslee announced his transportation funding package in December, Cowlitz County and the rest of Southwest Washington were ignored entirely.
The county is looking for state dollars to help pay for an estimated $150 million to $350 million in rail and road improvements in the Longview industrial corridor. Those improvements are considered critical to avoiding congestion and luring new employers to the area, including the Port of Longview’s Barlow Point Property.
The omission of that project in particular didn’t sit well with local lawmakers, who have taken their objections to the governor but so far have not received assurance their concerns will be heeded.
“I’m supposed to take this vote on a tax that hurts my timber industry and I get nothing for it? That’s asking a lot,” Takko said.
Takko said Inslee wants to fund his transportation package through a tax on carbon emissions, which would affect the timber industry and consumers.
“There’s no way you’re going to put a carbon tax on the (oil) refineries and not have that trickle down to the pump,” Takko said.
Blake said he, too, isn’t eager to sign off on a transportation package that ignores his constituents. Blake said a transportation package has a fairly slim chance of getting passed under the best of circumstances, much less when it ignores an entire region.
“It certainly has a much slimmer chance if they don’t identify projects that are priorities for my communities. I’m hoping both the Senate and the House transportation chairs understand that,” Blake said.
County Commissioner Dennis Weber said the governor’s opposition to coal exports and Millennium Bulk Terminals’ plan for a giant West Longview coal dock has led him to a misunderstanding about the rail corridor project. The rail and road improvements are essential whether the coal dock is built or not, Weber said.
“I think he (Inslee) has the misguided notion that the freight corridor came as a result of Millennium Bulk Terminals’ proposed coal export terminal,” Weber said. “We know that unit trains are a fact of the future and any export/import facility is going to have unit trains. As longs as the tracks go back and forth on Industrial Way, there will be a clog.”
Hatfield said his support for the transportation package will be pretty easy to figure out.
“If our area is taken care of with new revenue, then we will support it. If it’s not, we won’t support it. It’s not rocket science,” he said.
Nothing is official, but Hatfield said he has heard the governor’s office may agree to allocate $80 million to the Industrial Way corridor project.
“What that tells me is that we are on the radar screen for the House and Senate,” Hatfield said. “But that’s just one project. Districtwide there are a lot of other needs.”
Takko said lawmakers need to address confusion in state marijuana laws.
“We can’t have three tiers: legal, medical and black market. We have to have a single market,” Takko said.
He wants the tax on legal, recreational marijuana lowered so prices are more competitive, and he wants some of the revenue directed to local governments, which now get none.
Takko said it’s a lot like how liquor taxes are handled. Getting the state to give up revenue when it is facing an education funding crunch could prove difficult. Takko said it’s the best way to snuff the illegal market.
“People aren’t buying moonshine anymore because moonshine isn’t that much cheaper than going to the store and buying alcohol legally. And you don’t have to worry about the cops busting you when you come out of the woods from your still.”
Legislative session priorities
Local governments are concerned that the state’s fiscal challenges could prompt the Legislature to syphon money away from local communities, but they have other priorities for the Legislature as the 105-day session begins Monday. Here are some items on the “wish list” of local city, county, port and school officials:
• Support a robust transportation package with direct distribution to cities, especially the request for $90 million for the Industrial Way/Oregon Way corridor
• Share marijuana taxes with local governments.
• Make $1.4 million available from the Public Works Assistance Account for the Washington Way Bridge replacement in Longview, reconstruction of Yew Street in Kelso and a stormwater study for the McCorkle Creek watershed in Lexington.
• Improve the state’s economic climate to attract private investment, fund science and technology education, build public infrastructure (roads and utilities) and maintain the rural economic development tax credit.
• Remove barriers to law enforcement agencies’ use of body-worn cameras.
• Improve sex offender registration laws.
• Support funding for statewide law enforcement programs, such as jail booking and reporting, crime victim notification and auto theft prevention.
City of Longview
• Enhance local control over how local taxes and fees are raised and spent.
• Reduce mandates that drive up local costs.
• Change tax laws to help support airport development and expand aerospace tax breaks to include the engineering, manufacturing and repair of commercial rotorcraft.
• Fund recommendations by the Washington State Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study for spill prevention, preparedness and response programs.
City of Kelso
• Provide $4.5 million to replace the failing Minor Road Reservoir and including the two 90-year old concrete tanks that are leaking.
• Financial assistance to pay for extra indigent defense lawyers, as mandated by the state Supreme Court.
• Allocate $5 million to continue the West Main Street realignment and $900,000 for the Hazel Street rail crossing grade separation.
• Make sure the state complies with the state Supreme Court McCleary decision to fully fund basic education.
• Take steps to restore the state’s waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Losing the waiver is creating pressure to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations.
• Pay for teacher professional development and technology needs.
• Protect Community Economic Revitalization Board funding, which helps finance dock and other infrastructure improvements.
• Support Scott Avenue overpass project in Woodland
• Make sure new water quality rules related to fish consumption don’t thwart business development along waterways.