To make the most of the 60-day legislative session that begins this week, state lawmakers must focus on a handful of key priorities, such as continuing work on the McCleary school-funding case.
State lawmakers can accomplish only so much in the short time they are scheduled to convene in Olympia this year. To make the most of the 60-day legislative session that begins Monday, they must stay laser focused on a handful of key priorities.
Chief among these is continuing work on the McCleary school-funding case. The state Supreme Court’s November ruling said that although lawmakers came up with a good plan last year to meet the state’s obligation to fully fund public schools, their plan takes effect one year too late.
Lawmakers from both parties have valid concerns about whether investing $1 billion as the high court has ordered — to speed up the state’s takeover of school-employee salary costs — will lead to the best outcomes for children. Yet the court is correct to slam state officials for not fixing school funding by 2018, the deadline lawmakers set for themselves years ago. As they negotiate this issue, legislators must not ignore the court, which could invite harsh sanctions and risk a showdown between two vital branches of government.
With booming state revenues pushing the state’s total reserves to $2.4 billion by the end of the two-year budget cycle, lawmakers should be able to find a way to substantially invest in areas of public schools that still need their attention.
To start, they should work toward plugging gaps in funding for special education, as well as boosting other programs that can help ensure an equitable education for all children. On the salary issue, part of the solution might involve making money available sooner to districts that have already put in place newly required state reforms showing they are ready to accept those dollars.
If lawmakers do invest $1 billion as the high court is asking for this year, they should also move up the accounting restrictions and safeguards they planned to attach to future K-12 education money. This would help ensure school districts spend the new state dollars as intended.
Other priorities for the Legislature must include:
Passing a capital budget. Lawmakers in 2017 failed to approve a $4 billion capital budget to pay for building projects, which would have included about $1 billion for school construction. Without these dollars, many school districts will struggle to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, one of the requirements of the McCleary lawsuit. The lack of a capital budget has also stalled sewer replacements and other essential infrastructure projects throughout the state.
Resolving the Hirst water-rights issue. Disagreement over how to address the 2016 water-rights decision known as Hirst ended up killing the capital budget last year. Lawmakers should work toward responding to the Hirst ruling in a way that allows rural landowners to build and protects their properties’ value, while also safeguarding stream flows. But they should do that without holding the capital budget hostage.
Cracking down on dark money in politics. The Legislature should require more accountability of nonprofits that engage in political activity, which are frequently not required to register as political committees. Lawmakers should build upon a proposal from state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, to require any nonprofit making substantial campaign contributions to disclose its spending and top sources of funding.
Enacting a state Voting Rights Act. Several variations of this legislation exist. All of them would give cities new authority to elect council members by geographic district. Right now, state law prevents most cities from making that change without going through a lawsuit in federal court. Yet district-based voting — as opposed to having all council positions elected citywide — can help ensure all neighborhoods have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Lawmakers should agree on a version of the legislation and pass it this year.
Opening up lawmakers’ records. Most government officials in Washington, from town council members to Gov. Jay Inslee, are subject to the state’s Public Records Act. But for the past several years, state legislators have argued that they are above the law, saying their emails, calendars and other working materials are not subject to public disclosure. This contention has prompted a lawsuit from 10 media organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times.
Lawmakers shouldn’t wait for a resolution to that lawsuit to do the right thing. They should pass legislation in 2018 to clarify once and for all that they must follow the state’s Public Records Act, subjecting themselves to the same public scrutiny they require of other elected officials.
This is an important list for a short session. With focus, lawmakers should find a way to do the job.