Yesterday, March 10, marked the final day of the 2016 regular legislative session. I had hoped to be sending you a final session update, but unfortunately, budget writers in the House and Senate were unable to reach an agreement in time. That means we will be back in Olympia Monday to complete our work. I am very frustrated an agreement was not reached in the allotted 60 days. Special sessions have become far too common, and we should have adjourned yesterday as the people expected us to do. That said, I am hopeful we will complete our work next week and get back to our districts for interim. I look forward to being home and returning to work in the 10th District.
In a political climate where the news coverage often focuses on our differences, please know the majority of work happening here in Olympia is broadly bipartisan. From energy to education, public safety policy to transportation, mental health to economic development, the divisions we face are certainly real, but can be overcome. Often, our ultimate goals are the same – the difference of opinion exists in the details of how we get there. We all come here with our own areas of expertise, our own passions and our own beliefs. However, if we are willing to be respectful to one another and listen, and willing to pursue the right things regardless of who gets the credit, sound policy solutions can be found. This continues to be my promise to you, and I thank you for the continued opportunity to represent you here in Olympia.
Both the House and Senate have passed supplemental operating budgets. However, there were significant differences between the two that have complicated negotiations. The House budget, which I opposed when it passed the House, relies on $120 million in tax increases. For the second year in a row, the majority party in the House was unwilling to take a vote on those tax increases. That means their budget was essentially spending money that we don't yet have to spend.
Additionally, I have concerns the House budget unnecessarily uses the state's Budget Stabilization Account (also known as the rainy day fund), which is reserved for statewide emergencies, with overflows dedicated to education. Taking money from this account would put Washington state in danger of being unprepared for potential, unforeseen catastrophes ahead. While I am not on the operating budget negotiating team, I am hopeful budget writers will be able to find solutions that are more sustainable and allow us to live within our means – especially in a supplemental budget year where the focus is meant to be on small tweaks, revisions and minor policy additions.
The governor's response
Last night, Gov. Inslee expressed his frustration the Legislature had not completed its work by vetoing 27 Senate bills. While I understand his frustration, I disagree with his response. I've worked closely with the governor on a variety of issues and appreciate his diligence on many things important to me and our district. However, the veto pen last evening didn't hurt the Legislature – it hurt the taxpayers and those who would benefit from these bills.
Among the bills he vetoed was a bill that had unanimously passed both chambers aimed at removing obstacles for students with disabilities at our institutions of higher education. He also vetoed a bipartisan bill that would extend the work of the Marine Resources Advisory Council, which is important to our district, to Puget Sound health, to shellfish growers and many others.
Many people put a lot of work into the passage of a bill, including constituents and taxpayers who travel to Olympia to advocate for priorities and testify on things they are passionate about. It is unfortunate to see so many bills thrown out in order to make a statement, rather than considering the merits and benefits of such policies.
The supplemental capital budget is intended to address urgent needs, and we are working to do just that by making key investments in K-12 school construction, community-based mental health centers, and infrastructure repairs related to the recent wildfires in our state. We are working diligently to steward your taxpayer dollars for the best use in the final supplemental capital budget. Building classrooms continues to be the primary focus, and we are poised to make another significant investment next year.
As a member of the House Capital Budget Committee and part of the budget negotiating team, I will continue leading efforts to obtain the necessary data and information in order to make the crucial and significant investments in classroom construction. We cannot accomplish smaller classroom sizes without adequate space for our students and teachers.
Last Year: Last year's budget marked significant progress in education, including nearly $3 billion dollars invested in K-12 education alone, a sizeable tuition reduction at our state's colleges and universities, and historic investments in early learning. We aren't close to done, but I am pleased to see the momentum moving in the right direction.
Looking Ahead: K-12 education will continue to be the primary focus here in Olympia. We must continue our efforts to reverse several decades of decisions that grew reliance on local tax dollars to fund basic education. A levy lid once as low as 10 percent of a district's levy base has been ratcheted up to its current level of 28 percent. Meanwhile, the state has relied on local districts to pay competitive salaries and fund other components of education that are the constitutional responsibility of Washington state. I will continue to serve as one of eight legislative members on the governor's bipartisan McCleary Work Group during the interim, and can assure you K-12 education investments will be the primary focus again in 2017.
Vision Screening: One bill I'm particularly excited about coming from the House Education Committee this year is Senate Bill 6245, concerning visual screening in schools. Currently, as much as 40 percent of common vision problems aren't detected in schoolchildren because schools in Washington state don't conduct near vision screening. While a school would likely detect if a student was going to have a hard time seeing the whiteboard from across the room, they likely would not be able to detect that the pages in front of a student during reading time were blurry and unclear. A simple diagnosis of near vision problems can be life-changing for a child, and this is a simple solution to make a big impact in the lives of children. The bill has passed the House and Senate and is now headed to the governor to be signed into law. I'm hopeful he will sign it when it gets to his desk.
Assessments: Assessment reform was something I had hoped would be addressed this session. This is something I have spoken about at length with teachers, students and parents. Both last year and this year, I supported a common-sense, bipartisan reform to the state's assessment requirements for graduation to ease some burdens on school districts, students and families. The effort died again in the Senate this year, but I will continue to stand for efforts like these and am hopeful we can address this growing problem in the near future.
Charter Schools: I was pleased when earlier this week, the Legislature acted on a bipartisan fix to keep the charter school option open for students. Let me be clear: I am a strong supporter of our traditional public schools, but I do not see that this needs to be an either-or. If I in any way believed keeping these schools open and available to students and families would have a negative impact on the school districts I represent, I would have different feelings. However, doing so will not come at the expense of our commitment to our existing public schools, which already comprise 48 percent of the entire state budget and are poised to see another significant investment next year. The students being served by these charter schools are often from high-poverty homes, and a majority of them are students of color. When they visited us in Olympia this year, it was so wonderful to see how excited they were about their education. I'm pleased we could enact a bill that protects their schools and gives them the opportunity and choices to pursue their hopes and dreams. The bill now heads to the governor, where he has the choice to approve or veto it.
Last week, I was pleased to support House Bill 2872 on behalf of our dedicated public servants in the Washington State Patrol (WSP). The bill is aimed at addressing the current recruitment and retention problem faced by the WSP. With a high percentage of troopers eligible for retirement, trooper academy class-size numbers at historically low levels, and salaries uncompetitive with competing jurisdictions who are actively recruiting troopers, the time is now to address this growing problem. An important piece of the bill is the specification that minimum monthly salary levels for troopers and sergeants must be the average of compensation paid to the corresponding ranks from various other police departments. Our members of the WSP put themselves at risk each and every day to protect and safeguard our highways and families. It is important we take this step to better take care of them. This bill has been delivered to the governor, and I am hopeful he will sign it.
Another bill I'm excited about is House Bill 2545, which is related to toxic chemicals in children's products and other household products. The bill seeks to reduce public health threats by establishing a process to restrict the use of toxic flame retardant chemicals in certain types of consumer products. The bill is important for young children due to the focus on prohibiting toxics in the manufacture, sale, and distribution of children's products. It's also important to firefighters as it prohibits the manufacture, sale, or distribution of residential upholstered furniture containing specified levels of certain toxic flame retardants often breathed in and/or left on clothing and turnout gear following a residential fire. I've been supporting this bill for several years, and am pleased to report it has been delivered to the governor for his signature.
District office and contacting me
Following the conclusion of session, I will again be opening an office in the 10th District. As legislators, we have one staff person and have the option of either an Olympia-based office or a district-based office that moves to Olympia only for the duration of the legislative session. For my first five years in the Legislature, I had an office on Whidbey Island. It is my hope that for the duration of my time in office, I'm able to keep this option available. Contact and other information for the district office will be posted on my website as soon as things are finalized!
Please continue to contact me with your ideas about how we can best work together to solve the challenges facing our district and state. I am working hard for you, and cannot do my job as effectively without your input. This session alone, I have received thousands of emails, and am doing my best to get back to people. As I continue to try and respond to those who have reached out to me, please know that I value your comments and the time you take to share your thoughts with me. Please feel free to reach out any time through email (email@example.com) or by phone at (360) 786-7884.
It is an honor to serve you.