On Jan. 8, 2018, the Washington State Legislature will be back in session in Olympia for a “short” session that is scheduled to last only 60 days. The 60-day short sessions are typically used for tweaking the biennial budgets approved in odd-number years, not for major overhauls. However, a recent order from the Washington State Supreme Court in the ongoing McCleary decision has thrown a wrench into whether significant modifications are needed to the biennial budget adopted last July.
The McCleary decision, issued in 2012, held that the state was not meeting its paramount duty to fund basic education and mandated that the state do so by Sept. 1, 2018. The 2017 legislative session was dominated by the issue of crafting a funding plan that would bring the state into compliance and remove the daily fine of $100,000 that started accumulating in August of 2015. While it took the longest legislative session in Washington state history to adopt both an operating budget for 2017-2019 and a plan to fully fund basic education, legislators from both sides of the aisle felt confident when they adjourned last July that they had complied with the McCleary decision to remove the Supreme Court’s contempt finding.
On Nov. 14, 2017, the state Supreme Court issued an unanimous order in the McCleary decision that while the funding plan adopted in 2017 will eventually achieve constitutional compliance when fully implemented, it does not do that by the court-imposed deadline of Sept. 1, 2018. Specifically, the court stated the funding plan fails to fully fund a new teacher and staff salary model until the 2019/20 school year—a year after the court’s deadline. The court kept in place a previous contempt of court finding and a $100,000-a-day fine. The court also warned that if the legislature does not act during the 2018 session to resolve the funding gap, projected to be around $1 billion, “the court will immediately address the need to impose additional remedial measures.”
Coming up with an additional $1 billion of revenue in a 60-day session is a daunting task. In recent years, the governor and individual Democrat legislators have proposed new taxes such as a capital gains tax or a carbon tax to raise revenue, but those proposals were met with strong opposition from Republicans who controlled the Senate. A recent special election in the 45th District flipped the Senate to Democrat control for the first time in five years. However, even with the Senate, House and governor’s mansion all controlled by Democrats, it is unclear if there are the votes to pass a capital gains tax or a carbon tax. Moreover, any new tax would take time to implement and start generating revenue to comply with the court’s Sept. 1, 2018, deadline.
With the legislature potentially needing to come up with up to $1 billion during the 2018 session for education funding, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) will be vigorously defending agriculture’s ability to create jobs and compete in world markets by maintaining existing agriculture-based tax incentives.
Another important issue for the agricultural community is completing unfinished work from the 2017 session. Specifically, WAWG continues to advocate for a permanent legislative fix to the Hirst decision, which restricts the use of exempt wells and severely restricts rural development. WAWG is also very supportive of the legislature adopting the agreed-upon capital budget, which funds important projects across the state, including the Washington State University Plant Sciences Building and Global Animal Health Building.
WAWG will be participating in their annual Olympia Days Jan. 16-18 to educate elected officials about the issues of importance to the agricultural community and looks forward to the opportunity to engage with the governor and legislators.