State Supreme Court decisions seem to be driving much of the work in the State Legislature these days, and next year will be no different, if representatives from the 45th and 31st legislative districts are correct.
“They say Olympia is only big enough for one crisis at a time,” said Rep. Morgan Irwin (R-Enumclaw), speaking in Snoqualmie on Sept. 14. “Last year, it was McCleary, and I think this year, it will be Hirst.”
Hirst is a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that, essentially, no new wells can be allowed — without many costly studies — if they are expected to reduce the in-stream flows of nearby waterways, or to affect any related senior water rights. The implications of the decision severely restrict governing agencies’ ability to allow permits and property-owners’ ability to develop land.
“It is incredibly complicated,” added Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland), “and unfortunately, it’s tied to the capital budget. It is job one of this legislature, between now and January, to come up with a proposal to present…and get passed and get a capital budget done.”
Irwin and Springer were speaking at a legislative wrap-up session for the legislators in eight area districts, sponsored by a cooperative of 10 area chambers of commerce, including the Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce.
While the Hirst decision loomed for many legislators, they also brought some good news out of their 2017 session, which adjourned July 20, after three special sessions. The new biennial budget and its resolution to McCleary — a 2012 ruling that the legislature failed in its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education — was a high point of the session for some.
The $44 billion budget, with an additional $7 billion dedicated to education, has been criticized by many on the Eastside as the largest property tax increase in state history. It’s why Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island) said she made the difficult decision of voting against the education bill.
“The impact on the Eastside I think is going to be, I think, kind of shocking… As you know, the funding source for funding public education, pretty much across the state, is going going to rely dramatically on property tax increases on the Eastside,” she said. “So for our homeowners, especially seniors and those on low incomes, it is going to be very painful and I’m extremely concerned that people are going to be losing their homes.”
Senn also noted that school districts, cities and other taxing districts might find it more difficult to raise revenues through local levies as a result of the tax increase. Her preference would have been “diversifying that funding source,” she added.
Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah) said not every school district will see the same benefit from the decision, but the three main districts in his 5th District, Snoqualmie Valley, Tahoma and Issaquah, “hit a home run on this decision.”
As an example, he noted that the Snoqualmie Valley School District’s local levy is about $17 million, and the district will receive an additional $20 million from the state.
“So even if the local levy completely went away, which it won’t, the district ends up with more money,” he said.
Mullet agreed that there is still work to be done, though, in working with the school boards to reduce their local levies.
“Where we really need to focus, I think everyone in this room, is how you work with the school boards now,” he said. Given that it’s going to get an extra $20 million, “The Snoqualmie (Valley) school board really needs to now say, ‘we have the flexibility now to cut our local levy in half and even after we do that, everyone in Snoqualmie would actually end up with a tax cut and the school district would end up with an extra $12 million.’…The school boards have to follow through. They said they had to raise local levies because the state wasn’t there, now that the state’s there, they have to lower the local levies substantially.”
Irwin said he voted against the funding.
“This is probably the largest, most sweeping tax reform done in Washington state in 25 years plus… and when we’re going to have large sweeping tax reform, the voters should have a direct say in that,” he said.
He also said the resolution would be only temporary, because of the Hirst decision’s impact on property values.
“The McCleary fix is predicated on property values,” Irwin said. “We have taken property values and destroyed that.”
Moderator Randy Banneker asked the legislators to comment on traffic congestion relief efforts, specifically in the area of removing regulatory barriers to new transportation technology, such as self-driving cars.
Rep. Mark Harmsworth (R-Mill Creek) of the 44th District said the Legislature needed to create a framework to work with the businesses that are working on these innovations and then let them innovate.
“The industry is going to come up with great solutions around this. We need to be out of the way and let them build it,” he said, but added that safety needs to be built in and public opinion needs to be considered, “because people are going to be really nervous when that first car without a steering wheel shows up.”
These cars, said Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn), are the most viable solution for solving traffic congestion in his 31st district, because of the sheer volume of throughput they offer. Without requiring the additional space for human reaction time, autonomous cars can be stacked much more closely in lanes, moving more people through the same space faster.
“Light rail isn’t ever going to come to the part of King County where we’re at,” Stokesbary said. “What’s really going to make the biggest difference for us is autonomous vehicles.”
Most legislators agreed that their jobs were to “get out of the way” of the industry, but Springer said they couldn’t move aside entirely, even in Kirkland, where Google has permission to test their self-driving cars.
“Make no mistake. Google, or whoever develops the cars, is not going to build the roads, or the curb cuts, or the sidewalks, or the light structures,” he said. “It is absolutely essential that (government) partners with those autonomous vehicle developers to create the kind of infrastructure that those cars can actually operate on.”
Rep. Paul Graves (R-Fall City) earned the loudest applause of the evening when he mentioned the repairs of the S.R. 18 and Interstate 90 interchange — re-prioritized to start design work this year and construction in 2019, instead of six years later. He called it “the most consequential bipartisan transportation win in the whole state this year.”
The legislators also discussed toll roads and potential changes being considered for them in the future, the need for business and occupation (B&O) tax reform, the state’s carbon policy and education priorities.
For the final question, Banneker asked each legislator to name one or two top priorities for the next session.
Mullet wanted to look at ways to redistribute funding from the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program.
Graves said career-connected learning was his priority in education and increasing the number of foster parents was a crucial need.
Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn) joked about kicking Seattle out of King County, but said transporation funding was his big issue in the 31st District.
Irwin planned to focus on the budget and finding a solution to the Hirst decision.
Stokesbary said he had several large goals that couldn’t be accomplished in a short session, but he planned to start those conversations.
Senn intended to work on increasing the availability of child care, a critical need in her 41st District.
Harmsworth listed traffic congestion and B&O tax reform as his big issues.
Springer planned to focus on Hirst well before the session starts in January.
Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-Covington) wanted to encourage innovation in schools and hoped to address some of the overly complex processes in the Legislature.