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New senate coalition, Democrats pledge governance, not politics
Could this be “the year of the Grand Bargain in Olympia?” Sen. Ed Murray believes so after Washington House of Representative and Senate leadership members met Thursday at the Associated Press briefing to discuss their priorities for this coming legislative session, all agreeing to make funding education the number one priority for both houses.
With the recent formation of the Senate coalition this past December, questions were raised concerning the Senate’s ability to work in a bipartisan way. When asked about his priorities this session, Senator Murray (D-43rd District, Seattle), current majority leader, said the goal of the body was to govern responsibly.
Referencing Alan Rosenthal, Ph.D. of Rutgers University, “Legislative bodies, by nature, need to be at points of contention and those different points need to come together. Legislative bodies that work, compromise,” said Murray.
On the make-up of this hybrid organization in the Senate, Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48th District, Medina), the new Senate Coalition-majority leader this session, said the coalition will work in a sensible way. “We’re not doing this for window-dressing,” said Tom.
Nevertheless, there is still some disagreement on its composition. The coalition presently has six Democratic committee chairs and six Republican committee chairs, with three committees planning to be co-chaired by one Democrat and one Republican senator.
Democratic leaders in the Senate are in favor of appointing co-chairs to each committee to make the bodies totally bipartisan but Republicans disagree.
Tom stated that having co-chairs is not a functional way to approach this session and he would like to play to the strengths of each Senate member, still allowing for power-sharing.
Murray agreed that there is a great opportunity to take advantage of talent this session.
But what seemed to be on everyone’s mind Thursday was education, not just on how the body politic might work.
Enumerating his caucus’s priorities, House Minority Leader, Rep. Richard DeBolt (R-20th District, Chehalis), focused on addressing the looming 2018 deadline from the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision directing the Legislature to add funds to close the K-12 achievement gap.
To make education the top priority, DeBolt stated that education funding needed to have a separate budget formed in a “clear and transparent manner” and decided on before any other funding in Washington State.
“What is more of a priority than funding it first?,” asked DeBolt.
All legislators in attendance agreed that in order to fully address the constitutional mandate on public education, both revenue improvements and reforms were crucial.
Tom said the state currently allocates 43 percent of its budget to education funding. However, while the state recently spent more, the results have yet to show improvement.
Murray credited the lack of results to current tax policies, which have placed Washington in the bottom one-third taxing states.
“When you pay for a bottom-third education system, you get bottom-third results,” said Murray.
Tom entertained another method of receiving additional funds by using internet sales tax, anticipated to produce $500 million this biennium, for education financing.
But as discussed at the conference, in order to lessen the achievement gap formed by the increasing number of poor and minority students failing to meet their public education requirements, reforms must take place, the legislators said.
Speaker of the House, Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43rd District, Seattle), suggested that focus must always be on the student.
“We need to look beyond just the classroom and teacher,” he said.
In doing so he cited the Apple Health program as an example, which he said serves about 750,000 children in Washington.
To excel in school, a “student needs to be healthy and ready to learn,” said Chopp.
Murray stated that the achievement gap is directly related to poverty in the state.
In order to effectively close the gap, the state must help “grow the middle class by helping those who are not in it,” Murray stressed.
But Debolt argued that, “if we’re going to look at the education gap, we can’t just use platitudes and placations about politics.”
If the legislature wanted to address poverty in its relation to public education, it shouldn’t place people in more programs but rather find them a job, he said.
“The achievement gap is about putting people back to work in areas with high and persistent unemployment, said DeBolt. “If we think we’re going to program our way out of it by using big government tactics, we’re in serious trouble.”
While all-day kindergarten sparked discussion last session, Tom urged that, in order to address the gap, legislators needed to look at drop-out rates and the bottom 40 percent of students in Washington.
“Some students start behind and can never catch up” said Tom.
The 2013 legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 14, when the Senate coalition will take power.
Murray and his colleagues are excited for this session and are hopeful that compromise can be reached on education funding issues and other priorities.
“This could be the year…we look like Olympia, not D.C.,” said Murray.