Editorials: Focusing the Legislature on the work ahead
The Washington Legislature convenes Jan. 12 for its 2015 legislative session. The No. 1 priority is education, followed by transportation, medical marijuana excesses and a failing state mental-heatlh system.
Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times
More perspectives on focusing the Legislature
This week, Opinion is exploring what the Legislature should focus on during the 2015 session. Coming this week: letters to the editor, guest opinion columns and a video chat:
• Monday Guest columns on transportation:
• Tuesday Guest column on higher education:
• Wednesday: Guest column on education
• Thursday: Join a live video discussion with panelists on transportation
• Next Sunday: Guest column on medical marijuana
Join the discussion
What do you think is the most-pressing issue facing the Legislature? Why?
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F ever a situation called for a crucial mix of bipartisan imagination and courageous pragmatism, Washington's 2015 legislative session is it.
Let's set the stage: In September, the Supreme Court held state government in contempt for not offering what the court deemed a satisfactory plan to fully fund basic education. Adding to the state's financial squeeze, voters narrowly approved the teachers unions' budget-busting Initiative 1351, ostensibly to reduce class size. And, a week before Christmas, Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled his plan to raise money for education and transportation with a complex cap-and-trade system that would have large polluters paying for their emissions — with many details yet to come.
Enter the Legislature reshaped by voters with tight margins in both houses: Republicans have more firm control of the state Senate and the Democrat's margin in the House has narrowed considerably. Moderates of both parties will play a bigger role in solving the state's challenges. Expect the Legislature to be more likely to say no to the extreme special interests.
The court's McCleary ruling poses an exquisite opportunity for lawmakers not only to invest more money in education, but to make sure that money is tied to improving the state's educational outcomes. Sure, new tax revenue might well be in order — but not without actual reforms that improve the system, from preschool through college. Children should start kindergarten ready to learn; third-graders should read at grade level; and a high school diploma should actually mean a student is ready for college or career without having to take remedial classes.
Besides education, other pressing issues require lawmakers to use imagination and pragmatism: transportation; a medical marijuana market that threatens to undermine the state's legal marijuana experiment; and the state's mental-health system, rebuked by courts for failing citizens.
There is much to do this session with billions of dollars in play. The Times editorial board recommends the following priorities for lawmakers, who convene in Olympia Jan. 12:
Education: The paramount duty
ASHINGTON lawmakers should be laser-focused this year on education — not just on how to increase funding, but how to ensure that money produces better results for students.
Under the state Supreme Court's McCleary ruling, the Legislature can no longer rely on local levy dollars to take care of its fiscal duties.
To satisfy the court, the state will have to pump $4 billion to $5 billion more into education in the next four years, according to most estimates. By comparison, during the 2013 to 2015 budget cycle, the Legislature allocated $15.3 billion, or about 45 percent, of total state spending to K-12 education. Meanwhile, $3.1 billion, or 9 percent, went to higher education and about $163 million to the state Department of Early Learning.
The goal of any education spending should be to improve outcomes. Though the court ruling was focused on K-12, the Legislature must also make sure to expand early learning programs and higher-education funding, neither of which has the K-12 system's constitutional protections. The state's education system is a continuum, serving students from ages 3 to 23 and beyond.
Children should arrive ready to learn in kindergarten and subsequently graduate high school ready to take on college courses or enter the workforce.
The fact that most high school graduates in Washington have to take remedial classes when they get to college or begin preparing for a career proves that schools are failing many students and the system is wasting resources.
The state's adoption of the 24-credit graduation requirement and Common Core standards are two ways of boosting academic rigor in Washington schools — and the Legislature should not back away from those.
Other ideas include giving superintendents and districts more flexibility, paying for programs that help struggling students — such as summer programs and mentoring — and allowing state officials more power to intervene in failing schools.
This standard of putting increased state education money to its best use runs counter to Initiative 1351. Backed by the Washington Education Association and barely approved by voters, the ballot measure promised to reduce class sizes across all grade levels. But research shows positive effects from smaller class sizes happen mostly in the early grades. Lawmakers already plan to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, under the McCleary ruling.
Lawmakers should not let I-1351 be a distraction — not even the Democratic governor funded it in his proposed budget. The Legislature should either suspend I-1351 with a two-thirds vote of its members or send it back to voters with a funding source attached.
The Legislature has the opportunity to significantly shift how the state pays for basic education, but also to institute reforms and oversight to make sure each dollar is well spent. Quality education shouldn't be determined, however, by a dollar figure but instead by giving students the best opportunities to thrive and succeed.
Moving on transportation
TATE legislators fumbled efforts last year — and the year before that — to pass the state's first major transportation funding package since 2005. Our trade-dependent state cannot afford another delay.
A strong infrastructure is essential if Washington is to remain a competitive place to do business. Farmers and manufacturers need sound roads and bridges to transport goods to and from ports. Drivers are stuck in horrid congestion that takes time away from their families.
Last year, philosophical differences between leadership in the state House and Senate over reforms and state funding for mass transit hindered efforts to broker a deal.
The longer legislators wait to get something done, the higher the construction costs.
A $7 billion transportation investment could relieve traffic and produce at least $2 billion more in revenue over the next three decades, according to a study commissioned by the influential Washington Roundtable.
That report wisely suggests setting aside some funds for maintenance and preservation. The bulk would pay for shovel-ready projects statewide, from the Highway 520 bridge's west side to an extension of the North Spokane Corridor.
Gov. Jay Inslee's latest proposal to pay a portion of a $12.2 billion package over 12 years by charging larger emitters for the right to pollute is imaginative, but untested and risky.
Lawmakers must ensure a final transportation deal includes some reforms to rein in costs for taxpayers, as well as assurances that any new taxes would not hurt the economy.
Treat the mental-health system
ULINGS by federal and state courts in the past several months confirm what thousands of families and advocates have known for years: Washington's mental-health system is badly fractured.
The Legislature immediately must respond to the rulings, both of which found inpatient psychiatric access too abysmal to meet constitutional standards. The state has opened at least 134 beds since August. But to do more, the Legislature must help with construction money to build new facilities, and must address a state pay scale too low to lure psychiatrists needed to tend to the patients in the new beds.
The rulings, however, should not be read as a narrow critique of inpatient psychiatric care. Resources, new or existing, should be front-loaded in the mental-health system, to help people with mental illness avoid crises and the need for inpatient care.
Among the promising, tested ideas the Legislature should consider are more crisis-diversion centers, which are used to keep people with untreated mental illness out of jail, and assisted outpatient treatment, which gives court oversight of treatment for patients who cycle in and out of hospitals.
The Legislature should also take up "Joel's Law," named for Joel Reuter, a 28 year-old software engineer who was shot by Seattle police in the midst of psychosis. The bill, which didn't pass last year, would give family members more power to get a loved one into treatment.
Address threats to the budding legal marijuana market
OLORADO'S neighbor states recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to toss out the Centennial State's recreational marijuana law, based on frustration that its pot is washing over its borders.
Washington — Colorado's pioneering companion in state legalization — should view that demand as a warning. Lawmakers this session must act to clamp down on the leakiest element of the Evergreen State's marijuana experiment — its medical-marijuana market.
Washington has done a good job in tightly regulating a handful of new recreational marijuana stores. But the Legislature has given the far more ubiquitous medical-marijuana dispensaries a free pass: no licensing, no inspections and almost no enforcement.
Reconciling the recreational- and medical-marijuana markets would require lawmakers to finally clamp down on abuses of medical-marijuana authorizations by doctors and naturopaths. State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, the Senate Republicans' point person on marijuana, cites the case of a 14-year-old who gained an authorization — and access to dispensaries — via Skype, without his or her parents' knowledge.
Lawmakers should find a bipartisan solution that legally protects legitimate patients, gives them a break from steep sin taxes at recreational stores and brings dispensaries into the fold of rational regulation.
Failure to act this year invites a serious threat to the integrity of Washington's landmark marijuana experiment, most likely from the federal government.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).