FOR the first time since 2008, the state Legislature will reconvene for an off-budget year with the state budget in the black. That grace is due to a slowly recovering economy and a number of reforms, including a new four-year balanced budget requirement.
This opportunity must not be squandered. The Legislature has a few must-do items in a short 60-day session. But it can’t significantly change the bottom lines of the hard-won budget it passed last year.
On the must-do list:
• The paramount duty for the state, and for the 2014 Legislature, is education. The state Supreme Court, in an 8-1 order Thursday, slammed its gavel on the Legislature, demanding it quickly write a five-year, multibillion-dollar plan for the court’s McCleary decision, which mandates full funding for K-12 education.
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That is a critical endeavor, because the state does need to increase education spending. But the high court’s order measured education success based only on money, not better outcomes. That ignores smart education policy reforms desperately needed to raise student performance and to close the appalling achievement gap.
The court reserved its strongest legislative critique for the issue of teacher pay. That is a critical issue, but it must be coupled with changes to the new teacher evaluation system. Washington is on notice that $46 million in federal No Child Left Behind funding is in jeopardy because the state’s evaluation system says student achievement “can” be included in grading a teacher’s performance. That wording should be changed this session to “must” to preserve the federal funding and, more importantly, to reassert the principle that money comes with accountability.
• A dozen negotiating sessions between the House, Senate and the governor’s office failed to produce a deal for a $12 billion transportation infrastructure package. Blunders in the Highway 520 bridge and Highway 99 tunnel megaprojects erode the state Department of Transportation’s credibility, even as a fistful of new megaprojects are discussed. Negotiations should continue, but any gas-tax increase must include greater assurance of credible management.
• The state’s medical-marijuana dispensaries operate in a wholly unregulated, quasi-legal gray market, and will be in jarring conflict with the tightly regulated recreational-marijuana market opening this spring. Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, has a nuanced approach to integrating the markets while preserving patients’ rights. Failure to act ensures a U.S. Department of Justice crackdown on the dispensaries.
• Boeing’s decision to build the 777X production line in Everett should not distract lawmakers from the state’s business climate. Most pressing is the Department of Ecology’s plan to adopt the nation’s most stringent water-quality standards. The proposal, tied to human fish consumption, is so unrealistic that Bellingham estimated sewer bills would jump from $35 to at least $200 a month. The Legislature should put this plan on hold.
• Under federal pressure, Gov. Jay Inslee proposes opening the public mental-health system to competitive bidding. The plan smartly includes long-overdue integration of state mental-health and substance-abuse-treatment programs, and potentially with primary health care. Lawmakers need to act, but should also be wary of privatizing care provided to the state’s most vulnerable.
• Last session’s focus on the budget left policy reforms unfinished. The Dream Act, which would open state financial aid to high-achieving students without legal permission to be in the U.S., and an end to the state’s wrongheaded ban on higher education in prison, are both timely.
As the scrum of ideas, lobbying and politicking restarts in Olympia on Monday, foremost in lawmakers’ minds should be the bottom line of the budget. Any spare dimes should be saved, not spent, because fulfilling the McCleary decision will require every penny.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).