Let the session begin

Education, mental health funding at the forefront for local legislators

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed a phone number for Sen. Carlyle's now-closed district office in Seattle. That number has been updated.

$3.5 billion every two years. 

That’s been the estimate for the amount needed to bring the state into compliance with the state Supreme Court’s contentious McCleary ruling.  

Determining how to bridge that gap and fully fund public education is at the front of the minds of all three legislators from the 36th District, as they head to Olympia for the 2017 legislative session, which began on Monday. 

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, and Reps. Gael Tarleton and Noel Frame all ran unopposed, and will now be faced with crafting solutions to some of the state’s largest looming questions, starting with school funding. 

For Frame — entering her first full-term in the House after serving last session as an appointee — the issue dates back to her time in school. 

“I was a Washington state public high school student watching my teachers get laid off, programs getting cut, all because our levies couldn’t pass and we didn’t have basic funding from the state,” she said. 

Carlyle compared the task at hand with McCleary to paying a mortgage.  

“We’ve made interest-only payments for a couple years and we’ve done fine and we’ve paid a lot of money,” he said. “But now we have a balloon payment, and the question is how are we going to handle that balloon payment?”

Because of the classrooms that will need to be built to comply with the ruling, in terms of class sizes, Tarleton said the capital budget will be almost as important this session. Carlyle also mentioned that every school in the 36th District is currently facing “enormous pressure” relative to space. 

Work to address the levy cliff is also underway, with Tarleton saying that there will be a strong push to protect school districts in this fiscal year.

But along with education, all three also said that mental health funding is a priority. In tandem with that focus is concern over what could happen at the federal level with the Affordable Care Act. 

“I am absolutely dismayed at the prospect that the Affordable Care Act could be ripped to shreds within the first couple of months of the President-Elect taking office,” Tarleton said. “The consequences for our state are profound.”

Tarleton said the loss of federal dollars might put “unbelievable pressure” on budget decisions. Carlyle said if the federal match decreases further than expected, the magnitude of the situation could be that of the McCleary problem. 

“I would hope and expect that as state leaders we would not let thousands and thousands of people be without health insurance, as we have seen the positive benefits of how many people were able to come into that pool of insured,” Frame said. 

The uncertainty of federal partnerships on a broader scale than dismantling the ACA also looms large. 

Carlyle said there’s some degree of clarity when it comes to charting a course on the national level, with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s support of block grants. The size of potential cuts, and the programs that could be affected have yet to be seen. 

For Frame, the concern goes beyond federal policy, to the potential that the state may be high on the list of targets for anti-labor attacks and attempts to break up collective bargaining. 

“I think we’re going to have be really on offense in thinking about the attacks that are coming our way,” she said. 

Tarleton said it will be a matter of prioritizing and protecting as the session goes on. 

“We protect what we have, and we hold on to everything we can, and then we manage the crisis point when we reach it,” Tarleton said. “We find out where we’re going to have cuts from the feds, and we manage it, and that is the only way to handle the scale and the magnitude of what could happen.”

All three legislators also feel they made progress last year to take into the new session. 

Tarleton feels like she made headway in the previous session on both establishing career and technical education pathways to a high school diploma for every middle and high school in the state (she’ll introduce legislation this session), and on protecting state fisheries from the affects of recreational motorized mining, also known as suction dredging. 

She’ll introduce a measure that would require a permit under the Clean Water Act to access rivers and streams in Washington for that purpose. 

“That takes it out of the fee-based debate, and into the regulatory debate,” she said. “Are we compliant with the Clean Water Act? Every other state has fought it on the Clean Water Act because the process of mining disturbs the sediment. It’s an inherent part of mining, and all other commercial mining requires a permit.” 

Recognizing the interconnectedness of mental health and homeless services is something Carlyle believes has been better established heading into 2017.

“In health care, you have a situation where you have five to 10 percent of your population in this state driving 45 to 50 percent of your costs,” he said. “You’ve got to sort of put that in perspective, and it’s shocking. … That framework, I think, really has made meaningful progress in the last couple of years.”

Each member of the legislature is also working on their own points of emphasis. Carlyle is continuing to work on eliminating the death penalty in the state, and instituting a one-year “cooling off” period before becoming a lobbyist for legislators, state elected officials, and senior officials in the governor’s office. He also wants to see greater prescription drug cost transparency, greater tax transparency, and to make progress on the high school graduation rate, especially for foster youth. 

Tarleton said that she is focused on ensuring the integrity of the maritime and manufacturing economy in the state, as one of Washington’s largest employment sectors.”

“The middle-class rides on those jobs,” she said.  

She’s also worked toward getting money toward climate research. 

While stepping off the House Higher Education Committee, Frame is continuing to look at the cost of college textbooks, which can be a heavy burden, especially on low-income students. 

As a member of the labor committee, Frame said that issues of corporate tax accountability and tax reform will also be discussed. In particular, she sees momentum around remittances, and requiring those receiving tax breaks to show that promised jobs were ultimately produced. 

“The Democrats can and should be claiming that space and fighting for taxpayer transparency and accountability.” she said. 

But again, first and foremost, is figuring out education funding. Frame put it simply when describing the task at hand. 

“We will not be leaving until it is done,” she said. 

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