Legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee offered insights to the upcoming legislative session Thursday at the AP Legislative Preview. TVW taped the event — watch the House and Senate leadership panel, education funding panel and Gov. Inslee. Here’s a look at some of the issues they covered:
The accidental early release of 3,200 prisoners:
Republican Sen. Mike Padden, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, will hold a hearing on Monday at 1:30 p.m. looking into why thousands of prisoners were released ahead of schedule. The House will also hold a hearing next week looking into the technical computer failures that resulted in the early releases.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said the situation was unacceptable. “Letting the governor chose his own people to be independent investigators is questionable. The hearings need to be soon and they need to ask a lot of questions so we get real answers, and not spin,” he said.
Inslee later said he was “disappointed” by that characterization. He said the investigators are professionals with a combined 60 years of prosecutorial experience. “We’re going to make sure employees cooperate fully with these investigators,” he said.
Voters approved I-1366 in the fall, which cuts the state’s sales tax revenue unless the Legislature imposes a two-thirds majority to raise taxes. House Speaker Frank Chopp said the measure is “clearly unconstitutional.” Senate Democratic Minority Leader Sharon Nelson said she’s “hopeful the courts will take quick action,” adding that lawmakers are not willing to cut $1.4 billion out of the state budget.
Schoesler said Republicans support the initiative, noting that the two-thirds threshold can be met — as it was with last year’s gas tax increase to pay for transportation projects. House Republican Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen said if the court doesn’t make a decision, “you could be looking at a special session” to deal with the issue.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled in September that charter schools do not qualify for public money because they are not under the control of a locally elected school board. Schoesler said a bipartisan bill will be introduced to address the court’s concerns and keep charter schools open.
Nelson said the Legislature should declare homelessness an emergency and use $300 to $400 million from the rainy day fund to address the problem. “Drive along the freeway in Seattle and you see tent cities everywhere. We have an emergency,” Nelson said.
Schoesler said any use of the rainy day fund would require a three-fifths vote of the Legislature, and he would be “hard pressed” to see that vote. “I don’t think homelessness falls into the definition that created it,” he said, adding that the money should be kept in the emergency fund in case of another recession.
Impeaching State Auditor Troy Kelley:
Chopp and Schoesler both said they do not want to interfere with the federal case against Kelley, which begins in March. “We’re open to taking action, but we need to make sure the action is productive and constructive,” Chopp said.
On the education school funding plan:
A bipartisan workgroup convened to address the Washington Supreme Court’s contempt order against the state is close to finalizing an education funding plan, which will be released within a week.
Legislators said the plan will focus on gathering more data, including how local levy dollars are being spent on education and teacher compensation in each district. “We don’t know what potion of that is for basic education or legitimate enhancements to basic education,” said Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah. “We’ve been guessing up until now. Nobody really knows.”
The plan will make it clear that local levy dollars cannot be used for basic education, he said.
Lawmakers do not agree on a dollar amount that will be needed to fully fund basic education, although Democrats say that number should be at least $3.5 billion. They also do not have a funding source, and say that likely will not be resolved until the 2017 session.
Inslee said he’s “optimistic” about the plan. He said the effort should not just comply with the court order, but also improve education for children in Washington.