The 43rd Legislative District Town Hall packed Seattle First Baptist Church on Saturday, where lawmakers outlined successes and losses so far this session, and what could still be accomplished in Olympia.
Longtime Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen mostly stuck with the theme of Republican roadblocks, and freshman Rep. Nicole Macri spoke addressed priorities for her first session. House Speaker Frank Chopp also provided a good deal of legislative background, with some added humor.
“Afterward, we’re going to have some baptisms over here,” Chopp said, referring to the church venue.
Adequately funding basic education at the state level has been a top priority for many Washington lawmakers since the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, which found the Legislature has failed to fulfill that paramount duty.
Pedersen said it’s been his top priority for the 11 years he’s been in office, addressing during his opening statement the short-term issue of the levy cliff that had just been averted and the task still at hand of satisfying the McCleary decision and properly funding education.
Washington school districts are allowed to raise 28 percent of their levy base from local property taxes. The cliff represented a drop down to 24 percent that would have taken effect in 2018, causing an estimated $500 million loss for school districts, $30 million of that shortfall coming from Seattle Public Schools, Pedersen said.
House Democrats approved legislation to delay the cliff in January.
“Then the Senate Republicans sat on that bill for a long, long, long time,” Pedersen said.
The 43rd District senator said a lot of tactics were taken to get his GOP colleagues to approve the delay, suggesting what might have caused lawmakers to give in was the knowledge they too would be in front of their constituents during Saturday town halls.
The Republican-controlled Senate passed Senate Bill 5023 on March 9, and the House did the same the next day.
While students don’t have to worry about losing teachers, counselors or programs next year, Pedersen said, increasing education funding remains.
“There is going to be an epic battle here in the next couple months,” he said.
Chopp said the levy cliff delay was the first piece of legislation to come out of the House, adding it’s not unusual for progressive bills to go on to die in the Senate.
“Because of the efforts of Jamie and other folks, they really shamed the Republicans in the Senate to accept a levy cliff delay,” Chopp said.
Chopp lauded his fellow Democrats passing revenue-generating legislation for public health and education over the past several years that never made it out of the Senate.
“Had the Senate approved the plans that we passed for revenue, we’d have $2.8 billion more right now in our budget,” he said, adding that amount still wouldn’t have covered all of the state’s needs, “but it’s a hell of a lot better to have that to help our public schools.”
Pedersen said the “crisis” of education funding is an opportunity to fix a “completely broken and backwards revenue system,” where 50 percent of the state budget comes from sales taxes.
While the question of a state income tax was posed later during the town hall, Pedersen addressed the history in his answer to education funding.
Washington voters had once approved a “progressive income tax,” the senator said, but the state Supreme Court struck it down during the Great Depression in the 1930s. In order to get it back, Pedersen said the state constitution would need to be amended, which would be very difficult.
Pedersen said there are creative ideas in the Legislature this session to rebalance the revenue system.
“Most important of those, I think, is the capital gains tax,” he said. “It would help us raise a lot of money and it would be largely concentrated on the most wealthy people who frankly have the ability and obligation to be paying a lot more for the support of the state government.”
A capital gains tax is a tax levied on profits from property sales or investments.
Pedersen also supports Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal for a carbon tax, which would generate revenue for the state’s basic needs and also reduce carbon pollution, he said.
Macri said the House has not put forth its own revenue package yet because more thought is being put into not only meeting public school funding obligations, but also not cutting other services.
She said Republicans want to raise property taxes, predominantly in districts like the 43rd District, considered one of the state’s “high property value districts.”
“That would be really devastating for many of the homeowners here,” Macri said, “and there package is incorrect. It has a big math error that leaves them about $2 1/2 million short of fully covering the cost of their own plan.”
The representative said the House’s revenue package should be released within the next few weeks.
“The Senate Republicans basically should go back to math class,” Chopp said.
The House Speaker said the forthcoming revenue package will accurately propose how to cover education costs that include increased teacher pay and 10 paid days of professional development.
Pedersen reiterated that an income tax is out of the question for now, but added a capital gains tax would be a step forward in making that a possibility in the future.
Macri said the replacement to the Affordable Care Act — better known as Obamacare — proposed by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives is worse than expected in many way, but the 2020 timeline is better.
“The costs are going to be enormous,” she said. “The question is going to be, how much money do we as a state have the political will to invest, to make sure the 780,000 people who gained coverage through the Affordable Care Act will continue to keep that coverage?”
Chopp said Republican’s saying everyone being able to have access to healthcare is “a phony phrase.”
“You can have access to buy a Tesla, but you don’t have the money,” he said.
Chopp said more people are taking advantage of Obamacare in GOP-held districts than Democrats, adding he doesn’t know how those lawmakers sleep at night.
An audience member submitted a question regarding support for a single-payer plan.
“Medicare is a single-payer,” Chopp said. “Everyone seems to like that.”
Housing and homelessness
Macri is the prime sponsor of a bill that would prevent the sunsetting of 62 percent of what the state charges for real estate document recordings in 2019, while also giving local governments the ability to increase the fees in their municipalities. The recording fee is used to pay for housing and homeless services.
A bill to protect renters from discrimination based on their source of income, such as Section 8 vouchers, is dead, Macri said.
“I will say that we made more progress on that issue than in any previous session,” she said, adding it’s the Senate that needs to step up and agree with such legislation.
Seattle took this action on the local level last year, and Tukwila followed suit just last week.
Had Senate Bill 5569 passed, Pedersen said, those protections provided by Seattle and other cities wouldn’t have been allowed, putting the decision on the state.
An oil safety bill and solar power incentives legislation are still alive, Macri said, with the carbon tax bill being heard in the House Finance Committee on Friday.
Pedersen didn’t hold back on his feelings about fellow Sen. Doug Ericksen.
The first mention of Ericksen, who chairs the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, elicited boos from the crowd.
“Sen. Ericksen, for those of you haven’t followed his illustrious career, was the fellow who took — what is it, four years ago? — 57 paid meals from lobbyists,” Pedersen said, including from the oil industry. “This year, he hasn’t been in Olympia too much, because he’s been busy doing his other job, which is for dismantling the EPA for President Trump.”
He said on a rare occasion when Ericksen was in Olympia, he devoted a full hearing to a climate change denier.
“So, that’s what we’re facing in the Senate,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen railed against Senate Bill 5001, which would change Sound Transit’s board of 18 local officials, replacing it with 11 elected board members. Five would be from King County, Pedersen said, calling it “sour grapes” from Pierce County, which rejected the ST3 funding measure in November.
“It’s not an agency that’s without its problems, of course,” he said, “but if all of our government agencies were able to have the same record that Sound Transit has had now of delivering projects ahead of schedule and under budget, we would be better off as a state.”
Pedersen said he has heard legitimate concerns regarding car tabs.
“The motor vehicle excise tax that they (Sound Transit) collect still uses a very old valuation schedule that the Legislature already replaced 11 years ago with a more realistic valuation schedule,” he said, “but Sound Transit has considered itself locked in by its previous bond sales into using the old schedule, which overvalues cars.”
The senator has heard from a lot of constituents regarding a major increase in their car tabs renewal fees this year. He said drivers that own a vehicle that is more than 10 years old are not being affected by Sound Transit’s valuation schedule.
Move Seattle increased license tabs from $40 to a flat rate of $80, Pedersen said, adding “talk about not progressive.” The state transportation package passed in 2015 added a $25 car tab fee.
While there were no anti-transgender bathroom bills introduced this year in the Senate — there were three in 2016 — Pedersen said there were a lot of proposals that did not get attention this session. That included bills requiring school districts to protect transgender students from bullying, he said, and preventing them from being subjected to conversion therapy — Seattle banned the latter in 2016.
“We did have that bathroom bill dropped in the House,” Macri said, “but we basically forgot about it, because it was dead on arrival. It never got a hearing, it never got a thought about having a hearing.”
27th District Rep. Laurie Jinkins, who is a 2016 Gender Justice Awards winner, chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and told the Capitol Hill Times in January she would not give House Bill 1011 a hearing.
Macri said an anti-transgender bathroom initiative, I-1522, is still up in the air, so people should learn about it and get involved in blocking it.