Legislators chart course for session

Hundreds turn out for 36th District town hall

The 2018 legislative session starts on Monday in Olympia, and local lawmakers are hopeful that this year, they’ll be done on time.

That means 60 days, with the Democrats controlling both the House and Senate for the first time since 2012 after a special election victory on the Eastside.  

On Saturday, the 36th District delegation of Sen. Reuven Carlyle, and Reps. Gael Tarleton and Noel Frame hosted hundreds of their constituents in a town hall at Coe Elementary in Queen Anne to take questions and discuss their plans for the next two months.

Among the looming questions once again is education funding, after the state Supreme Court ruled in November that the funding plan approved by the legislature last session — to raise state property taxes and lower local levies — did lead to full funding, but not quickly enough.

 “The question really before us is important, and that is, will we step forward and follow the script of the timeframe of the court, or will we try to spread that out,” Carlyle said. “I don’t think that it is an ideological argument, I think its very legitimate technical and policy issues on both sides.”

The senator said he’s hopeful that the legislature will figure out how to fill that nearly $1 billion gap to meet the court’s requirement on schedule.

Also unfinished from the last session is the state’s $4 billion capital budget, held up as part of the impasse over the Hirst court decision and rural water rights. Carlyle said he’s “very hopeful,” it will be passed in the coming days.

“We’re working very hard to get resolution of the issue that’s been the divide,” he said.

That capital budget includes $5 million to reopen Magnolia Elementary, along with funds for the renovation of Queen Anne Elementary and the development of Smith Cove Park off Pier 91.

Higher car tab bills were another much-discussed topic throughout 2017 after voters approved the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 measure, with lawmakers receiving pushback from some regarding the method used by Sound Transit (initially done at the direction of the legislature) to calculate car values.

“There was an outcry — appropriately so — that some people felt that they weren’t adequately informed of what the valuation schedule would be,” Tarleton said.

The job of legislature, she said, is to “resolve the in between,” of those who supported the funding mechanism as is, and others who didn’t feel informed about the impact it would have.

Tarleton — the House Majority Floor Leader — noted a pair of bills that will be considered in the coming weeks, one allowing vehicle owners to seek a rebate with a lower valuation, and a second that would give drivers the option of a payment plan instead of paying the full bill at once. That said, she doesn’t want the transit agency to take a hit, calling herself a supporter of Sound Transit legislation and ballot measures, “since the beginning of time, at least the beginning of my time here in Washington State.”

“I will make sure that whatever approach is taken in the legislature — if any — that I will work with Sound Transit to make sure that they do not have a negative affect on their ability to deliver the projects that they have promised the voters and that the voters voted on,” she said.

On the topic of taxes, Carlyle mentioned the potential for a carbon tax as a top priority, and said that’s one issue better addressed by the legislature as opposed to a voter initiative. 

“I’m not saying for a New York second that public initiatives are not a great way to engage in public issues,” said Carlyle, the new chair of the Committee on Energy, Environment, and Technology. “I am saying that the complexity of carbon policy, the need to invest those dollars in a responsible way and have a negotiated, thoughtful to this complex legislation, in my view, makes it more tenable and realistic to do it the legislative route. I don’t think that your elected representatives should punt on every tough issue. I think we should step up and do the best that we can, and then face the voters.”

There was also talk of the broader tax system in the state, and brief discussion of an income tax, with Rep. Frame saying it would have to be part of a,” comprehensive solution.”

Carlyle said Washington’s neighbor to the east — Idaho — has a compelling model.

“The reason is that they have low rates, broadly applied, with few exemptions,” he said. “What we have in Washington State is high rates, narrowly applied, with about 704 exemptions.”

Those extensive tax breaks are something Frame has taken issue with throughout her tenure. She said they favor those that have the time to come to Olympia to ask for relief, adding that it's not a good way to run a state. Frame also mentioned a bipartisan work group to conduct outreach across the state on the topic of tax reform.

"I think we all know to talk about the fact that our extraordinarily regressive tax code disproportionately impacts middle-class and low-income people," she said. "It does the same thing to small business as well." 

Frame also discussed voting rights, and called the Washington Voting Rights Act, “one of the top priorities,” of the session, expressing confidence that this is the year it will pass both chambers. She also mentioned legislation that would allow for same-day registration

“People should be able to show up day of and still have a chance to vote,” she said.

Pre-paid postage for ballots, and pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds are also on the table.

Criminal justice reform and police accountability were briefly discussed as well, with Frame saying the legislature, “took a good run,” at attempting to repeal the malice clause from state’s deadly force law before falling short. That’s now part of De-Escalate Washington’s Initiative-940, which, if approved by voters, would remove that clause, in addition to requiring all officers to receive violence de-escalation and mental health training.

Meanwhile, Frame said she’s hopeful of passing legislation regarding the state’s auto decline laws, which sends 16-and-17-year-olds to the adult court system if they commit certain crimes.

“[That’s] just a recipe to throw those kids away for the rest of their lives,” she said, “and if we can repeal the five provisions that were added in 1997, we have a better chance of getting those kids, keep them in the rehabilitation services, and set them up for success to be a productive member of society moving forward.”

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