Dear Friends and Neighbors,
It seems surreal to be writing a review of the legislative sessions in August, but that's where we are after a regular session that began Jan. 9 and three special sessions that took us to a record 192 days, ending July 20. I wanted to take a few minutes to provide this update as you try to escape the summer heatwave and the Canadian wildfire smoke this week.
Some five-and-a-half years after the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 that the state of Washington was not living up to its constitutional duty to fully fund K-12 education, the Legislature passed House Bill 2242, the so-called “McCleary fix.” The court is concerned local schools are relying too heavily on local levy dollars to pay for basic education, including salaries for teachers, school administrators and classified staff that should be paid by the state. House Bill 2242 addresses this through reforming the local levy system by providing an equitable levy rate and per pupil calculation.
The measure initially increases the statewide property tax by about 81 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value in 2018. However, in 2019 many property owners across the state will see their property taxes go down. The new law will cap the levies at either $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value or $2,500 per student, whichever is lower. Levy equalization assistance will be provided to property-poor districts that can't reach $1,500 per pupil at a levy of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value.
Under this reform, more than $7.3 billion of increased funding is directed for K-12 education over the next four years. K-12 spending now accounts for 51 percent of the state operating budget for the first time since the 1980s and will rise to 53 percent by the end of the 2019-21 biennium.
Teacher salaries begin at $40,000, plus a 10 percent increase for Certificated Instructional Staff after five years. There's a maximum salary of $90,000 and a district-wide average salary of about $64,000 per teacher. The measure also creates a statewide health benefit system for school employees. My seatmate, Rep. Norma Smith, has provided a chart you can view here (scroll down) that shows the resulting increase in school funding in the 10th District as a result of this policy change.
While I'm supportive of the additional state money into public schools, I remain concerned about how this legislation could affect some of our local school districts that have used levy dollars for enhanced educational programs. I think the reforms are far more equitable than what we had. However, I expect there will be some fine-tuning needed in the future.
This was a major part of a new 2017-19 state operating budget of $43.7 billion the Legislature passed June 30. You can read more about the McCleary solution here.
Why is there no Hirst fix and no capital construction budget?
Many Skagit County residents can tell you firsthand why it is so important that the Legislature fights to protect statewide rural water rights by rolling back the Washington State Supreme Court's Whatcom County vs. Hirst, Futurewise, et al. decision, also known as the Hirst decision.
In 2013, the high court ruled in favor of the Swinomish Tribe, which challenged Skagit River minimum instream flow rules. An instream flow is a water right for a river or a stream that protects and preserves instream resources like fish habitat. In March, Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee of the impacts of that ruling.
“We have people who put wells in the ground during that time period that now, if their well was not used for beneficial use before 2001, we cannot issue a building permit,” said Wesen. “Our assessor in 2014 went back and looked at 785 parcels. And those 785 parcels, because they do not have water available for development, he went back and reduced the assessed value by 70 percent of those properties. So our assessed in that area was reduced by over 22-million-dollars, and that directly affected Skagit County and those different areas.” He added that banks will not issue loans on those properties, so “those properties are basically worthless.”
Last October in the Hirst decision, the high court ruled that Whatcom County failed to adequately protect water resources. Rather than the state Department of Ecology determining adequate water, the Hirst decision puts the onus on 27 of the state's 39 counties with instream flow rules and individual property owners to pay for a costly study to prove small wells won't harm fish. Some counties have already stopped granting permits. And just like the Skagit County/Swinomish case, no water means no development and plummeting property values.
Four times, the Senate passed Senate Bill 5239 to permanently roll back the Hirst decision, but House Democrats refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Instead, they offered a temporary 24-month window for wells to be drilled, and insisted tribes be able to veto any proposal — even wells located miles away from a reservation.
My House and Senate Republican colleagues and I are not willing to cede your water rights to special interests. We have held firm that until a PERMANENT Hirst fix is in place, the Senate will not vote to pass the state's capital budget. This $4 billion budget funds construction across the state and is important to all of us. We believe it is not fair to allow the state to use taxpayer dollars to build projects while denying those same taxpayers in the rural and suburban areas of our state the ability to obtain water and develop their own properties.
Although the Legislature adjourned without a Hirst fix and capital budget, we are prepared to return at any time once an agreement is reached on a PERMANENT fix to return to Olympia and pass both of these important measures.
You can't touch your iPhone, but can you drink your latte while driving?
As a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Department, I've seen my fair share of injury accidents and fatalities caused by drivers putting on their makeup, shaving, and even reading a newspaper when they are driving. That's why I introduced House Bill 1631.
My bill defined distracted driving as engaging in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of that motor vehicle on a highway. The measure received a public hearing in the House Transportation Committee, but the committee decided to instead advance House Bill 1371.
This measure said you can't hold your cell phone, your tablet or other devices to talk to people while you're driving. I didn't support House Bill 1371 when it passed the House because I felt it was too narrow and didn't address the issues of distracted driving. However, when a similar measure, Senate Bill 5289, came back from the Senate for another vote, the distracted driving language of my bill was added and I voted in favor of the final legislation, which was signed into law by the governor.
The new distracted driving bill became effective July 23, and there's been an enormous amount of misinformation about what you can and can't do. Mike Lindblom, transportation reporter for The Seattle Times gave the best explanation in this news article. He writes: “Fellow travelers, let's get something straight. It remains legal in Washington state to drink coffee and drive. Just make sure to stay in your lane. All non-emergency use of a handheld device, and all watching of video even in dash-mounted devices, is a primary traffic offense, meaning police can pull you over and write a $136 ticket.”
The portion of law from my amendment does not specifically say you cannot eat or drink a non-alcoholic beverage while driving. But if you are weaving across the center line, run a stoplight, or commit a standard traffic offense and are pulled over by an officer, and it is discovered you were applying makeup, cleaning your spilled coffee, or doing something that interfered with the safe operation of your vehicle, you could get an additional ticket of $99.
So go ahead and drink your latte. Just make sure you drive safely while you're doing it. But please do stay off your cell phone when you are driving. The new law says you can't pick it up to look at a message, even if you are at a stoplight. It's not meant to irritate drivers. It's meant to save lives.
I work for you throughout the year
Although the Legislature is adjourned from its sessions, I continue to work for and represent you throughout the year. If you need assistance with state government or have questions, comments or concerns about legislation, please contact my Olympia office. You'll find contact information below. My legislative aide, Mitchell Chitwood, will be glad to take your call. Thank you for the honor of allowing me to serve you!