2015 session: Took too long, pretty good results, one huge issue remains

At the end of the day – 176 days, actually – Washington’s legislature ended up having a pretty solid and productive session this year. May we never see its like again.

From a policy perspective, we’d be fortunate to have many more years like this one. From a governance perspective? Not so much. The issues and the revenue numbers barely changed over these six months. That it took legislators three overtime sessions to complete their work does not bode well for the difficult issue they will face next year.

But we should acknowledge and celebrate the many positive outcomes from the 2015 session:

  • $1.3 billion toward the state’s McCleary obligations, and an overall increase of $2.8 billion in K-12 funding. Education funding overall grew by 19% while the rest of state government grew by 6%.
  • An unprecedented cut in college tuition to help students and their families. Tuition will drop 20% at the regional schools and 15% at UW and WSU.
  • A new transportation package that will build projects we absolutely need. Completing SR 167, improving I-5 at Fort Lewis, and widening I-405 are especially critical.
  • Included in that are important transportation reforms and, most importantly, the package ensures the ill-advised low-carbon fuel standard is off the table for several years.

All this was achieved without the $1.5 billion in new carbon taxes and capital gains income taxes the governor and House Democrats called for. Some tax exemptions were ended, so Democratic lawmakers did walk away with some of what they wanted. Senate Republicans demonstrated over the course of the session that the additional $1.5 billion simply wasn’t needed.

One big issue awaits in 2016
Left unfinished this year was the thorny topic of levy reform. Most coverage of the McCleary decision has focused on ample funding, but the court is also requiring legislators to pay for more of the costs of basic education and rely less on local levies to fill in the gaps.

The cleanest and most politically-palatable solution to that problem remains a revenue-neutral levy swap, in which local property taxes are lowered and state property taxes are raised by a proportionate amount. Coming to a resolution on this tough issue will require the governor to move past his tactically-based opposition to a levy swap left over from the 2012 campaign. It will also require a shirt in thinking by legislators from property-rich districts to view property taxes as a state levy to fund the state’s obligation to all of our schools.

That’s a big issue to tackle, especially in an election year. No doubt all sides will approach it with their campaigns in mind. Hopefully our officials recognize – and the court’s order will help focus them – that resolution of this issue is critical to the well-being of our state and its schoolchildren.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.