Dear Friends and Neighbors,
As we approach the end of the second special session, negotiators continue to work hard to hammer out a plan to fully fund our state's K-12 public education system. The eight-member team, which includes two members from each caucus, is meeting regularly. Everyone is listening, ideas are being discussed, and movement is taking place.
The talks are centered on the final piece needed to satisfy the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision. Local schools should not have to rely on local property levies to fund teacher and staff compensation. It is the state's duty to provide and fund basic education for all of its children.
After a less-than-stellar track record of 30 plus-years of underfunding public education, the leadership in the Legislature changed. The newly formed Republican-led Senate took the helm in December 2012. Since that time, the Legislature has made significant strides is reversing years of neglect. $4.6 billion has been added to education funding in the last two legislative cycles, without raising taxes.
How did they do it? By making education funding a priority.
The state's operating budget covers the general day-to-day expenses of all state agencies, including K-12 education, higher education, public safety, social services, and natural resources. With the added investments made in the last few years, more than 48 percent of the current operating budget now goes to education.
Washington's state constitution reads, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children.” Words are important. The words “ample” and “paramount duty” are at the center of the ongoing struggle to fulfill our obligation to provide a high-quality education for the children of our state.
When I came to Olympia, one of my objectives was, and still is, to see education funded first in our state's operating budget. The concept is simple, but important. We need to require the Legislature to pass a separate K-12 education budget, before making any other appropriations.
“Fund Education First” was introduced by House Republicans in 2006. It would elevate education to the highest level in the budget process and ensure it is properly funded each budget cycle. Further, it meets the expectations of the state constitution, and the McCleary ruling by the state Supreme Court, by making education funding the Legislature's first budgeting duty.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree education funding is their top priority. So, why did a measure introduced during the first few weeks of the regular legislative session to “Fund Education First” fail?
Surprisingly, several lawmakers in the majority party fought hard against this change. They expressed various concerns over prioritizing education in the budget process. However, many of them have not expressed a great deal of concern over increasing our taxes by more than $8 billion dollars.
Instead of putting education funding first, its been put last. Because of that, we are now looking at the possibility of a third special session to resolve our education funding issues.
Changing the way we take care of our schools is arguably the single-most important thing we have to do as a legislative body. As budget negotiators draw nearer to finding a solution for 2017-19 budget cycle, I'm reminded that without a fundamental change in the budget process, it is entirely likely we could end up in another McCleary-like situation. While some lawmakers may fight against it, I will continue to advocate for Fund Education First reform.
Whatcom County vs. Hirst
Another critical issue that needs to be resolved prior to the adjournment of the Legislature involves the Whatcom County vs. Hirst state Supreme Court decision. In 2016, the court changed how counties decide to approve or deny building permits that use wells for a water source. The court ruled that residential wells, which have traditionally not required a water permit from the state, are not exempt and now require some form of permit.
Counties are now responsible for the specific permitting processes and decisions. They must issue the building permits – and are liable for damages if local water tables are negatively impacted.
So, what does this mean for you and me?
The Hirst decision has basically halted new building, both residential and commercial, in rural areas. Counties are not issuing building permits because they are uncertain if “exempt” wells are really exempt any more. Some counties are now requiring hydrological studies that cost thousands of dollars before they will issue a permit. It is extremely expensive, and nearly impossible, to prove how new wells will affect water tables.
Hundreds of property owners who wanted to build homes have been left in limbo. Some have poured all of their savings into building a new home in a rural area, only to find out they can't get a permit. The Hirst decision has effectively blocked building development in rural areas throughout the state.
Even if you are connected to a city water system, you have an interest in protecting residential exempt wells. Restricting their availability negatively affects the real estate market and lowers the property values in our region. We need a “Hirst-fix” this year that will allow development to continue in the rural areas of our state.
Senate Bill 5239, sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, has proposed a solution for the Hirst decision. The bill clarifies state law to allow residential exempt wells and the resolve other problems caused by Hirst. The bill has been approved by the state Senate and now awaits a vote in the state House.
During the special session, I encourage you to reach out to me with your questions, ideas and feedback. Feel free to contact my office. My contact information is below.
Thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.