Education panel splits along party lines on legislature’s first day

OLYMPIA — Monday’s opening of the 2017 legislative session featured traditional displays of pomp and calls for unity rather than politics as lawmakers confront an array of daunting challenges.

But it also began ominously as a legislative panel that’s labored to find a path to fully funding public schools adjourned without issuing a final report because its Democratic and Republican members disagreed on what it should say.

In a series of party line votes, the Education Funding Task Force rejected inclusion of Democrats’ four-page offering of policy changes with a $7.3 billion price tag and Republicans’ suggestion of putting in mostly materials received from consultants in months of meetings.

Nancy Truitt Pierce, a Monroe School District board member, attended the task force’s final meeting and afterwards expressed disappointment at the outcome. She said members of the Washington State School District Association, of which she serves on its legislative committee, hoped for a bipartisan blueprint to emerge to jump start the conversation.

She said the recommendations Democrats put out “were a great place to start with. Without even that, you have to start from zero.”

This blast of partisanship blew through the Capitol a couple hours before the formal start of a session scheduled to run 105 days though most anticipate it will be longer because of the issues such as school funding.

“It’s going to be a marathon,” said Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island.

Lawmakers are under a Supreme Court order to ensure the state covers the entire cost of basic education in public schools including salaries of teachers, staff and administrators. For years school districts have been using local property tax collections to cover what the state doesn’t pay and the court has said that has to stop.

Democratic lawmakers say new sources of revenue will be needed and are prepping for hiking taxes while Republicans are not embracing any tax talk at this stage. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, meanwhile, is proposing new taxes on carbon emissions and capital gains and a hike in the tax rate paid by service businesses.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, in his opening day address, said the House passed a revenue package in 2013 that would have covered the education tab but the Senate refused to act on it.

“This year we must get the job done. Providing full funding of education is imperative,” he said.

Chopp also called for improving Washington’s mental health system and preserving a basic level of health care for residents. He warned that if the federal health care law is repealed as many as 750,000 people in the state could lose their health care.

“If that happens many (of them) will suffer. Many will go bankrupt. Many will be neglected. Many will die,” he said.

Though Chopp at times sounded a partisan drum, he concluded by urging lawmakers to “treat each other with respect, keep an open mind and most importantly hold the public interest as our prime directive.”

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, followed with an appeal for each lawmaker to set aside their differences as they face the challenges ahead together.

“Let’s get to know each other down here,” he said. “There’s a time to campaign. Now it’s time to govern. Governing is what we were actually hired to do. Let’s do right by the citizens who hired us.”

A number of other issues are going to dominate discussions including reducing homelessness, reforming the Public Records Act and repealing the state’s death penalty law.

Also Monday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced his proposed legislation banning the sale of semiautomatic military-style assault weapons will be sponsored in the House by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds.

And Snohomish County’s delegation formally welcomed two newcomers Monday, state Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, and Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, and two returnees, state Reps. John Koster, R-Arlington, and John Lovick, D-Mill Creek.

As expected, Lovick was elected deputy Speaker Pro Tem, which means he’ll be presiding with gavel in hand on some House floor debates as he did in his last legislative stint.

Lovick thanked House members for entrusting him with the responsibility and ended with one of Chopp’s favorite lines, “Let’s get to work.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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