Education one of many issues Whatcom's state lawmakers will squeeze into short session

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 12, 2014 

Legislative Building at the Capitol Campus in Olympia.

Legislative Building at the Capitol Campus in Olympia.

TONY OVERMAN — THE OLYMPIAN

When the state Legislature opens the 2014 session on Monday, Jan. 13, in Olympia, it will face competing priorities: a renewed call to increase education funding and a desire to finish the 60-day session on time.

Last year's 105-day, budget-writing session ballooned to three sessions and 153 days, as lawmakers were unable to agree on a budget for 2013-15 until a partial shutdown of state government was imminent. The Legislature in fact met four times for a total of 156 days in 2013, including the short November session to approve tax breaks for Boeing.

"One of our goals is to get out of there in 60 days," said Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, as she listed her priorities for this year.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, agreed with Lytton on one point: He wants to finish on time. As for how legislators spend those precious 60 days, the two diverged quickly.

Lytton and other Democrats say action is needed this session after the state Supreme Court on Thursday, Jan. 9, said the Legislature still isn't on pace to fully fund K-12 education by 2018. Thursday's order follows the court's 2012 ruling in McCleary vs. state of Washington that the Legislature is failing to fully fund public education as required by the state constitution.

"We are not going to get where we need to go unless we talk about finding a source of revenue," Lytton said in an interview on Friday, Jan. 10. "Whether that's closing existing (tax) exemptions or looking at a different tax base, I don't know how we get there."

Ericksen said proposed legislation from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn that would significantly raise sales and property taxes was a nonstarter.

"That appears to be the proposal on the table right now," Ericksen said on Friday. "That's not going to happen. It's a 60-day session, and we're not going to raise property taxes. We're not going to raise the sales tax by 1 percent."

In a statement on his office's website, Dorn described his bill as more of a cudgel than a policy proposal. The tax increases wouldn't kick in until 2018.

"This bill is a blunt but necessary instrument," Dorn said on the website. "Something has to be done, and passage of this bill will, I hope, spur the Legislature into action."

Lytton said she didn't take Dorn's bill at face value.

"I think it's more of a motivational message," she said.

"We have to have a plan of how to move forward," Lytton said. "I'm not sure we can get there within our current (funding) framework ... or our current structure within the Legislature."

While Democrats control the House and the governor's mansion, Republicans and two like-minded Democrats run the Senate.

Lytton said it was telling that Republican Sens. Steve Litzow and Joe Fain didn't show up for the last day of meetings last year of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding. She said she has observed among state Republicans a "separation of powers" stance toward the McCleary decision: The court can't tell the Legislature how to write a budget.

Ericksen, who was not on the task force, said as much in an interview on Friday.

"They're in the Supreme Court. I'm in the Legislature," Ericksen said, when asked how the Senate should respond to Thursday's court order. "We do budgets. They interpret the law."

One senator certain to be "doing budgets" this session is Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who announced on Thursday, Jan. 9, that Democrats chose him to be the party's No. 2 on the Ways and Means Committee.

Ranker will step down as leading Democrat on Ericksen's Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. The Democrat will remain on the committee but will no longer work closely with Ericksen to shape energy and environmental legislation, as he did in 2013.

Instead, Ranker will be one of four senators in intensive negotiations on what the 2014 supplemental budget will hold.

"I'm going to be a lot busier, and it's going to be a lot of late nights," Ranker said on Thursday. "My absolute priority now is going to be the budget."

Ranker said he will work on restoring social programs cut during recent state budget crises, and seek a long-term fix to spiraling college tuition costs. Also, the Supreme Court has put funding K-12 education high on Ranker's to-do list.

"Some people are saying we're not going to even have a (supplemental) budget," Ranker said, referring to Republicans. "This (court order) seems to suggest we at least need to have a discussion."

As chairman of the committee that handles environmental legislation, Ericksen said he intends to secure money for cleaning up hazardous-waste sites on the Bellingham waterfront. He proposes a 10-year funding package that would provide $160 million.

"My goal is to get it finished," Ericksen said of the complex cleanup requirements along the waterfront redevelopment site.

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, chairs the House Technology and Economic Development Committee, which sees many of the same bills as Ericksen's committee.

Morris said he was frustrated in 2013 because bills he thought were important stalled in Ericksen's Senate committee, including a bill requiring energy efficiency and water conservation standards. This year, Morris and Ericksen already have been meeting to come up with shared goals.

"Doug and I have been trying to figure out what we agree on before the session starts, to get through both chambers," Morris said.

The two committee chairmen already have been negotiating the possible extension of an incentive for solar and other alternative-power generation that's set to expire in 2020. The proposal would extend the cash payout to solar and wind-energy users another 10 years. Morris said the renewed incentive might offer a smaller payment, at the urging of Republicans.

"There's been pushback about subsidizing new-energy technologies," Morris said.

Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, said he will focus on bills that would help farmers. One bill that didn't make it to the House floor last year would allow farmers to transfer water rights from one property to another. Another bill would expand a sales-tax exemption for farmers on manure equipment to the contractors many Whatcom dairy farmers hire to make sure manure is handled according to U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrient-management standards.

He anticipated some obstacles to his proposed legislation.

"We're always going to fight about water. It's always going to be a push to get anything water-related through the Legislature," Buys said.

The manure management bill would mean less revenue for a state government under pressure to provide more money to public schools.

"It's a tax exemption, which always face something of a struggle," Buys said.

Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, did not respond to interview requests.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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