Dear Friends and Neighbors,
I wanted to take a few moments to provide an update on the latest actions from Olympia.
THE GOOD. . .
OPERATING BUDGET ACCOMPLISHES HISTORIC GOALS
The good news is that toward the end of the second special session, the House and Senate finally agreed on a two-year state operating budget. The bipartisan budget increases K-12 funding by $1.3 billion dollars – or 19 percent. That's the highest increase for our public schools in more than 25 years and brings total K-12 education spending to 47 percent of the total operating budget.
The new budget expands access to full-day kindergarten and decreases class sizes in grades K thru 3. It makes a major investment in early learning, including Early Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. And teachers will get their cost-of-living increases specified from Initiative 732, plus a little extra in their paychecks.
For the first time in state history, we have actually CUT tuition for higher education. It means a 15 percent reduction in tuition at Washington State University and the University of Washington, 20 percent tuition reduction at our regional institutions, and a five percent tuition cut for community and technical colleges. These cuts to tuition demonstrate our commitment to higher education and making it more affordable for families and students. We should all be very proud of this accomplishment.
This budget also makes investments to address court-mandated fixes in the state's mental health system. And it honors the collective bargaining agreement raises for state employees.
One of the best parts is that we have been able to accomplish these achievements without major tax increases. Democrats had proposed everything from new business and occupation taxes against small employers, a bottled-water tax, a carbon tax and even a new capital gains income tax. These proposed tax increases are unnecessary because of the positive economic growth our state will see over the next two years. Over the upcoming biennium, revenue is expected to increase by over $3 billion, more that 9 percent! We must learn to live within our means in state government.
I know there's a lot of frustration that it took so long to reach agreement on a budget plan. That's primarily because we stood firm against unnecessary tax increases. So you might say those extra days in Olympia saved our taxpayers more than a billion-and-a-half dollars. That, I believe is well worth it.
ADDITIONAL DISTRICT JUDGE APPROVED FOR SKAGIT COUNTY
I'm pleased to report the House and Senate approved legislatiion I sponsored to add a third judge to the Skagit County District Court. Population growth and an increase of cases on the court docket have worked to create a backlog that threatens our local justice system in Skagit County. On Tuesday, the House approved House Bill 1061 by a vote of 94-4, and the Senate passed the bill unanimously and sent it to the governor. You can read more about this bill and the reason I sponsored it from a press release I sent out in January.
THE BAD. . .
It was just after 1 a.m. (early morning) Wednesday that the House voted to approve a 16-year, 16-billion transportation revenue package by a vote of 54-44. I voted no, but the measure passed and was sent to the governor.
The bill would raise state gas taxes by 11.9 cents a gallon, starting with the first seven-cent increase on Aug. 1 of this year. It also makes significant increases to vehicle weight and licenses fees.
I recognize that our state has some major transportation infrastructure needs, I am committed to addressing those needs. However, I am very concerned with the overall cost of this package and the fact that it saddles our children and grandchildren with debt too far into the future. This is the largest gas tax increase in the history of our state, and frankly, the needed reforms to drive the cost of projects down were rejected by my Democrat colleagues. This package does contain some reforms, but in the end they won't address the costly problems that we have seen with the current mega projects or provide for accountability of your tax dollars!
. . .AND THE UGLY
We had hoped to wrap up business by the end of the evening, Tuesday. After the transportation revenue bill passed early Wednesday morning, we waited to take a vote on the bonding bill to help pay for the project. But two hours later, that vote was put on hold and House members were dismissed because an agreement was unraveling in the Senate to suspend the class-size measure, Initiative 1351.
Suspension requires a two-thirds majority approval, and Senate Democrats had agreed to provide enough votes for passage. But in the early morning after most of us had been awake for 20 or more hours, Senate Democrats decided to barter for legislation they wanted that would make reforms in student assessments. A vote was taken on the class size initiative suspension, but it fell short of the necessary super majority.
Without passage of the bill, it could cost the state an additional $2 billion not provided in the final budget agreement that had just been signed hours earlier. The Senate finally dismissed around 6 a.m., leaving a lot of unfinished business that must be addressed.
DISAPPOINTMENT, BUT MANY SUCCESSES
There are many of us who are disappointed with the early morning politics, and we will need to return to vote on a handful of bills. Regardless of what happened Wednesday, I think it is important for you to know that we made significant accomplishments in the past six months. We passed more than 300 bipartisan bills, including the operating, capital and transportation budgets — and all of these measures will benefit Washingtonians and communities across our state. For that, I am very proud and extremely appreciative of the ability to serve as your state representative.
My future newsletters leading up to the 2016 legislative session will address the unfinished business of the 2015 session and what I plan to accomplish in 2016. I fear that the weaknesses that exist currently within our Department of Transportation will only intensify with the addition of more megaprojects included in this construction package.
Please contact my office if you have any questions about the material I've covered in this update or any other issues relating to legislation and state government.