Gas tax, McCleary take stage

Thursday ruling brings mandatory school funding to the forefront

Thursday’s state Supreme Court order demanding further action on implementing the McCleary school funding ruling could throw a monkey wrench into legislators’ anticipated slow session.

The 60-day session starts Monday.

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-12th District, said the Legislature did all it could do last session by appropriating an additional $1 billion for education, and she didn’t expect more changes in this supplemental budget year.

But then the Supreme Court issued its Thursday order regarding progress toward fulfilling a state constitutional mandate to make “ample provision” for the education of all children in the state.

The order requires the Legislature to develop this session a complete plan for fully implementing a program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year and to appropriate more funding for education.

The plan must be submitted to the court by April 30.

“The need for immediate action could not be more apparent,” the court said. “Conversely, failing to act would send a strong message about the state’s good faith commitment toward fulfilling its constitutional promise.”

Parlette said Friday the ramifications of the court order are not yet known.

“I am not sure what the next step is,” she said. “Obviously, as a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, this will be a topic of discussion in 2014 which I will be involved with.”

Rep. Cary Condotta, R-12th District, said he expected transportation funding to be the hot topic, “but the newest wrinkle is McCleary. It will create a real showdown.”

He said the court “is clearly out of line” with its order. “I think it’s a conspiracy to allow the Democrats to raise taxes.”

Rep. Brad Hawkins, R-12th District, said some legislators want to meet the obligation using existing revenue, while others insist higher taxes must be imposed. He prefers to use existing revenue.

He, like Condotta, Parlette and others, expected education funding to take a back seat this session since the court’s implementation date had been 2018.

“I’m an advocate for education, too. I’m pleased with the progress we made,” he said.

Condotta said the additional $1 billion should have been enough.

“It’s ludicrous to say add more,” he said.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-7th District, said the Supreme Court’s ruling to put a time frame on the McCleary decision stretches the separation of powers. He said the Supreme Court is getting “dangerously close to legislating.”

“I think they’ve already gotten into something that doesn’t concern them,” Kretz said. He said money is not the sole factor in providing better education.

“I think we need to be looking at streamlining the system,” he said. “How do we educate better? It’s not just the money.”

Rep. Shelly Short, R-7th District, said Wednesday she didn’t expect a big push to satisfy the McCleary decision until 2015 — but that was before the Supreme Court issued its mandate regarding yearly progress.

On Friday, representatives from Short’s office said staff attorneys were still trying to determine what the ruling means.

Prior to the court’s ruling, legislators anticipated a hold-the-line session with flat revenue projections and few hot topics on the docket. It’s the second year of the biennium, so they anticipated making only minor budget changes this session if spending plans need to be fine-tuned.

“Revenues are flat, but better than anticipated and maybe even slightly higher,” Hawkins said. “But we need to be cautious.”

The Senate Coalition Caucus – 26 Republicans and two Democrats – is clear on the subject: No tax increases without major reform, Parlette said.

Parlette agreed that transportation funding will be a hot topic, as will sorting out marijuana laws and implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Her 7th District counterpart, newly elected Sen. Brian Dansel, a Republican from Republic, could not be reached for comment.

Short said she’s particularly concerned with how health care changes will affect the mental health care field and providers like Okanogan Behavioral Healthcare.

“There’s definitely an acknowledgement that funding has been sorely lacking,” she said.

Condotta, as ranking Republican on the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, said he’ll be deeply involved with refining and implementing the state’s marijuana laws in the wake of a 2012 initiative allowing people to possess and use small amounts of weed legally, and to have state-permitted growing and retail operations.

He has introduced legislation calling for 30 percent of the 25 percent retail excise tax on marijuana to go to local city and county governments.

Zoning for marijuana operations also is a concern.

“We have 60 days to get it right,” he said, adding that state legislators will be watching Colorado and how it implements its marijuana law.

Local legislators also have a few projects they plan to tackle this session.

Hawkins said he, Condotta and others have proposed a bill to refine state election law so counties don’t have to run county-wide primaries for single-candidate positions. Chelan County ran into that situation last fall when it had to run a primary for prosecutor with only one name on the ballot.

He also plans to add to his “transparency” legislation, some of which was adopted last session. That bill set up a statewide, interactive map so people can keep track of transportation projects.

He wants to add contract information to the map.

A third bill Hawkins proposes is an amendment to the Open Public Meetings Act to require state and most local governments to post agendas online in advance of their meetings. There’s no requirement for advance agendas now.

“I’m not the flashiest legislator. I try to put my constituents first,” he said. “For me it’s more about public service than politics.”

He said he tries to be organized and make sure his bills have bipartisan support going in.

Parlette said she’s working on an ongoing project to protect the Stemilt Canyon area for watershed, recreation and wildlife uses. Several local and state agencies, and user groups are involved.

She also is interested in behavioral health issues and the situation at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster. The hospital has been losing money, owes more than $2 million in interest-bearing warrants and is losing its chief executive officer this spring.

“It’s clear they can’t stay on warrants,” she said.

Condotta said he’s working on a bill to give people more flexibility in paying property taxes and another to allow licensing of independent contractors so they don’t run afoul of the Department of Labor and Industries. Another would reduce the Labor and Industries appeal cost.

“It’s the busiest 60-day session I’ve ever been involved with,” he said.

All three legislators said they want to hear from constituents.

“I like to serve my district. It’s the most fun part of my job,” Parlette said.


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