By Saturday morning, it had been about six weeks since the last 36th District town hall meeting, held in the Ballard High School library.
That event drew a standing room-only crowd of more than 300 people to hear from Sen. Reuven Carlyle and Reps. Gael Tarleton and Noel Frame.
This weekend’s event warranted a larger venue, the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard. But again, more than 100 people were left standing after all the seats had been accounted for.
Ultimately, more than 400 were on hand — a majority of whom self-identified as first-time town hall attendees — for the legislative update from the full delegation.
“Your voices really are making a difference in Olympia right now,” Tarleton said.
At the top of the list for many were questions about the state’s current tax system, and the potential for reform.
“We understand the problem and we’re willing to have the conversation,” Frame said of those living in the 36th District.
Along with the potential legal hurdles — the state Supreme Court ruled the last voter-approved income tax unconstitutional in the 1930s — Tarleton said such a measure couldn’t happen without reforming the entire current tax structure, which relies on a mix of property, sales, and business & occupation taxes.
“This is not a sustainable tax structure and it never has been,” said Tarleton, who went on to say that progressive tax reform won’t happen without Seattleites reaching out to friends and family in other parts of the state to make the case.
With another round of recent job cuts at Boeing, Frame mentioned bipartisan efforts to link aerospace tax credits to employment rates in the state. Both Frame and Republican Rep. Richard Debolt of Chehalis have introduced bills in the House.
“They’re not honoring the intent of that deal,” Frame said of Boeing.
In general, Carlyle said the state has to be cautious about spending, with uncertainty in the other Washington.
“We have a profound structural shift happening with our relationship with the federal government,” he said.
Among the partnerships on shaky ground is the extent of funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the new administration’s commitment to conservation. A draft plan from the EPA would cut spending on the restoration and monitoring of Puget Sound from $28 million in this fiscal year to just $2 million, as part of a larger effort to cut programs and reduce spending by more than $2 billion in the agency.
Tarleton said people must stay vigilant and actively speak up to protect the environment, and that the state is working alongside Oregon and California in that regard. She reaffirmed her support for maintaining the integrity of the Growth Management Act, which was adopted by the Legislature in 1990 as a way to guide planning for growth and development in the state.
Frame said there are “really tough decisions to make” when it comes to funding choices. She did note that, in spite of efforts at the federal level to defund Planned Parenthood, such measures would not come out of the legislature in Washington.
Education funding was also a topic of discussion, on the heels of votes last week by the state house and senate to extend the “levy cliff.” Had no action been taken, school districts would have only been able to raise up to 24 percent of their levy base through property taxes, down from 28 percent. In Seattle, that would have meant a $30 million shortfall.
But while that smaller problem has been addressed, the much larger issue of complying with the McCleary decision remains.
“What we’re have to acknowledge is the Seattle School District is still struggling with a structural deficit,” Carlyle said, noting the district’s financial situation after the most recent contract with the teachers union in 2015.
According to the senator, there is some agreement when it comes to education funding across the aisle.
“The majority party plan in the senate was for a substantial tax increase,” Carlyle said. “They recognize that there is the need for additional revenue.”
Where the parties differ is on how to get there. The plan passed by the senate included a new, permanent state property tax levy, while eliminating local district maintenance and operation levies. The house passed its own plan to put $7.6 billion over four years into education, but did not lay out funding specifics in that bill. A proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee included a capital gains tax, and a tax on carbon, and Democrats have floated the idea of higher property and business taxes as well, along with closing existing tax loopholes.
Also discussed were the funding mechanisms for the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 measure passed by voters in November, after some were caught off guard in recent weeks by the cost of their car tab renewal.
Carlyle called it legitimate for the legislature to revisit how the motor vehicle excise tax is calculated.
However, he said he thinks it would be a “mistake” to take away governance authority from Sound Transit. A bill filed by Republican senator Steve O’Ban of University Place that passed the Senate by a 29-20 vote calls for the replacement of the current, 18-member board with an 11-member elected body. While all current members of the Sound Transit board (sans the state secretary of transportation) are elected to other offices, the measure would also prevent board members from holding any other public office.
The legislators were asked about the potential for the state legislature to lift the statewide ban — in effect since 1981 — on rent control.
Frame said the conversation is a non-starter in Olympia, but said she’s in favor of the preemption being removed, and allowing individual cities to make their own determination. Tarleton and Carlyle also voiced their support for local control.
Carlyle was also asked about the future of the state’s legal marijuana sales, in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ views on the matter.
While Carlyle again mentioned the uncertainty in dealings with the federal government, his response was cautioned.
“I think it’s incredibly difficult for the federal government to unwind the progress made at the state level,” he said.
The regular session of the legislature is set to end on April 23, but at least one special session is possible, if not likely, with both parties seemingly still far apart on a comprehensive solution to education funding, among other issues.
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