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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Trump Digs, Partisan Sniping and Education Funding As Washington Lawmakers Convene

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington lawmakers at a legislative preview forum sponsored by the Associated Press. Education funding is a top issue as the legislature convenes in Olympia for a 105-day budget writing session.

The Washington Legislature convenes Monday for a 105-day budget writing session. And the political dynamic in Olympia is full of digs at President-elect Trump, partisan sniping and disagreement over how to fund education.

To set the stage for Washington’s legislative session you need to know a couple of things. First off, the legislature is virtually tied. Democrats have a one-seat majority in the state House. Republicans hold a one-seat advantage in the state Senate.

Here’s the second thing you need to know. The state Supreme Court has said the legislature needs to act to end the reliance on local school levies to fund basic education. The legislature has committed to doing that this year. Democrats and Republicans both promise they’ll get the job done.

“We don’t plan to fail,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said.

Partisan split on education

But there’s no agreement on how to get it done. Democrats like House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan say it will take billions of dollars in new taxes.

“It’s about the state actually stepping up to its obligation, its constitutional obligation to amply fund our schools,” Sullivan said.

Republicans like Schoesler counter that it’s time to fund education first in the budget and that taxes are a last resort -- if that.

“I still don’t believe that the biggest tax increase in history is absolutely necessary to prevent the sky from falling on our children,” Schoesler said.

A bipartisan task force on education funding has been meeting for months. It was supposed to have a list of nine recommendations ready to go for day one of the legislative session. Instead that task force split along partisan lines.

Democrats put forth a plan that calls for a $7 billion increase in state spending on schools over the next four years. Republicans issued a list of “guiding principles.”

Democrat Christine Rolfes accused Republicans of not doing their homework.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” she said.

Republican Ann Rivers who sits on that funding task force along with Rolfes brushed off the criticism.

“I know the tendency ‘oh we’re good, they’re bad, we did our homework, they didn’t do their homework,’ but the reality is we’re very close on many, many issues,” Rivers said.

More issues, more differences

It’s not just education funding that confronts lawmakers as they return to Olympia. Both sides agree more needs to be done to shore up Washington’s mental health system and address homelessness. Again, there are differences over how to do this, but Democratic Speaker of the House Frank Chopp said there’s an urgent need for action.

“Because literally people are dying on the streets right now so we have to address that, it’s not just about education,” he said. “It’s also about basic humanity.”

Other topics Washington lawmakers are likely to wrestle with include police use of deadly force and distracted driving. There’s also the unknown about what a Trump presidency and a Republican Congress might mean for Washington state.

Speaker Chopp is especially concerned about a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“We will certainly develop a contingency plan part of the difficulty is not knowing what the federal government will do from minute to minute or from tweet to tweet,” he said.

Chopp isn’t the only Democrat to take a swipe President-elect Donald Trump and his tweeting habits.

Even Republicans acknowledge the other Washington presents a big unknown right now.

“God only knows what’s going to happen in Congress and with all the tweets and everything else that are going on out there,” said Dan Kristiansen, the Republican leader in the Washington House. “But that being said we’re going to be affected by it one way or another.”

It’s clear there’s a lot at stake in the 2017 legislative session -- and a lot of unknowns. But already there’s a partisan edge to things that suggests a grueling several months to come.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."