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Dear Friends and Neighbors,
As we approach the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year, I wanted to take a few moments to provide an update on the latest issues from Olympia.
First, I would like to thank all of the firefighters and local volunteers who are courageously working to save lives and protect property in the communities throughout North Central Washington. Fire crews from throughout our state and notably from our local area in Island, Skagit and Snohomish counties have pitched in to help save lives and property from these devastating fires. My thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the three firefighters who lost their lives and those who have been hospitalized fighting these fires.
State Supreme Court McCleary response
Many people have expressed surprise and dismay with the Aug. 13 ruling and $100,000 per day “fine” by the Washington State Supreme Court. The justices ruled that the Legislature failed to meet the court's earlier order regarding education funding.
Part of the court's concern is that schools have been relying too heavily on local property tax levies to fund “basic education” costs such as teacher salaries, transportation and operating expenses. There were several proposals made during the session that would have addressed local levy reform. However, when the third special session finally came to a close on July 10, we recognized we had not met this goal and would need to re-address the matter during the 2016 legislative session. I can assure you, legislators are currently working on this matter and attempting to come to a consensus with a proposal that can be debated and voted upon.
The local school levy is one of the most regressive taxes in the state, where areas with high property values such as Seattle and Bellevue pay less than 30 percent of the median tax rate. At the same time, the most impoverished areas of the state pay significantly more. See the chart below.
The discussion currently under way in Olympia is over a “levy swap” proposal, meaning a revenue-neutral swap of state property tax for local levies, while staying within the constitutional 1 percent limit for regular property taxes. This would bring $1 billion of existing local excess levies into a more regular and dependable tax structure – the statewide property tax. The reluctance, however, comes largely from those in high property value areas who would likely pay more under the levy swap.
Justices want lawmakers to return to Olympia for a fourth special legislative session and have ordered a $100,000 per day sanction until the state meets their demands, with that money going into a dedicated account for basic education. That certainly sounds like a lot of money, but please keep in mind the total amount of the accrual represents a very small percentage of the overall budget and huge increases the Legislature has already dedicated toward basic education over the coming years. The response from legislative leaders is to let these fines accrue while a bipartisan team works on solutions to the Supreme Court's concerns. These solutions could be voted upon in a special legislative session, but it is more likely to be addressed during the 2016 legislative session.
As a member of the House Education Committee, I am proud to say the Legislature provided one of the best bipartisan education budgets in more than 30 years! We invested an additional $2.9 billion in K-12 education, which equals a 19 percent increase. We also addressed class sizes in grades K-3 where experts agree low class sizes matter most. We also provided a cost-of-living wage increase for our educators and staff, funded full-day kindergarten and fully funded transportation needs. I certainly recognize there are more issues to be addressed regarding education. But even the Supreme Court has noted in their most recent ruling that substantial progress was made.
New state gas tax increase goes into effect – I voted 'no'
Although gas prices have slowly gone down over the past two months, it has not gone unnoticed by constituents in our district that the state gas tax increased on Aug. 1 by seven cents per gallon. This represents the first segment of a two phase increase – the second of which will take effect in July 2016 with a 4.9 cent per gallon increase. This will put our state in second place nationwide for the highest state gas tax.
In July, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 5987 to increase transportation revenue through additional taxes and fees. I voted “no.” The measure is expected to generate nearly $16 billion over the next 16 years for new highway and bridge projects, a new 144-car ferry and terminal projects, transit, bike and pedestrian projects, as well as needed rail and fish passage barrier improvements.
As a member of the House Transportation Committee, I certainly recognize our state has major transportation infrastructure needs. I am committed to addressing those needs head on. However, I am concerned with the overall cost of this package and that it saddles our children and grandchildren with debt far into the future. This is the largest gas tax increase in the history of our state and, as earlier pointed out, puts us only behind Pennsylvania for the highest tax in the nation. Although this package contains some badly needed reforms, I feel that we fell well short of truly addressing the problems that drastically drive up the costs of transportation projects and would provide more accountability for our tax dollars.
In the end, our state needs to reform the way we pay for transportation projects. We need to get back to paying for these projects as we go, instead of financing multiple mega-projects at once and putting our citizens in debt for those projects for 30 to 40 years into the future. The House Republican Caucus is dedicated to addressing this in the coming years.
Do the crime, do the time!
During the recent legislative session I mentioned how concerned I am with legislation that would implement “justice reinvestment” in Washington state. This is a process by which sentences for certain property crimes, such as commercial burglary and auto theft are significantly reduced. It would provide the state with substantial financial savings. The state would hire up to 108 additional community corrections officers (CCOs) to provide supervision to some offenders, and these offenders would be required to undergo drug treatment and counseling. Additionally, grants would be provided to local law enforcement to help the fight property crime.
I have spent my career as a law enforcement officer and currently serve as a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office. This proposal is meant to drive down recidivism and is a noble mission. However, I can tell you that on its best day, this proposal would allow most offenders to commit crimes and face no jail time or needed treatment and counseling.
First, you need accountability. Reducing the sentencing standards for crimes simply sends the wrong message. It gives more freedom to the offender to continue to engage in his or her criminal activity without direct accountability or answering for their crime. Under this proposal, even a third time offender may not go to jail. I feel that if you do the crime, you need to do the time!
Secondly, many, if not most property crimes are committed to support a drug habit. Any reforms must include mandatory drug and alcohol treatment as appropriate to the given situation. This is another way in which this proposal falls short. Many of the offenders who need drug or programmatic treatment will not receive it. This would allow them to fail to kick their habit and continue to re-offend and make more people victims.
I agree we need more community corrections officers, and I have argued for this since before I was elected. To reduce recidivism among offenders, they must be held to account within the community following their release from jail. But we cannot trade more CCOs for lower jail sentences, which would simply be counterproductive.
Finally, this measure would provide grants for local law enforcement to enhance their crime-fighting programs. However, the way the measure is written, the grants would be directed to larger, more metropolitan areas of the state. To truly be effective, our small and medium-sized jurisdictions must have the ability to participate, with an emphasis on inter-agency cooperation.
Gov. Inslee is strongly backing this legislation. While we were able to stop it this year, I believe that he will be pushing hard for it in 2016. As a senior member of the House Public Safety Committee, I will be working on alternative legislation that will provide accountability, mandatory drug treatment and programmatic treatment, and providing more resources for law enforcement statewide, especially in our small to medium-sized agencies who need the resources the most.
I work for you throughout the year
Although we are no longer in session, I am here to serve you throughout the year. If you have questions or comments about this email update or any other topics, please reach out to my office. My contact information is below.
Thank you for the honor of allowing me to serve and represent you!
467 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7914 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000