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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."

Inslee Prioritizes Education Funding In Inauguration Address

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Democrats give Gov. Jay Inslee a standing ovation during his second inaugural address before a joint session of the Washington Legislature.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was sworn in Wednesday for a second term. In his inaugural address to a joint session of the Washington Legislature, the Democrat said his top priority this year is to fully fund education.

Inslee compared fully funding schools to climbing a mountain. He even introduced famed climber Jim Whittaker -- the first American to summit Mt. Everest in 1963.

And Inslee said the state has reached the part of the climb that is the hardest.

“And we know there are multiple routes we can take,” he said. “I’ve proposed one that gets us there this year.”

Inslee was referring to his more than $5 billion two-year tax plan to fully fund schools and build classrooms.

Besides education funding, Inslee highlighted early learning, mental health, homelessness and a restructuring of social services as key priorities for the 2017 legislative session.

The Washington Supreme Court has given the state until the 2018 school year to create an amply-funded, constitutional public education system. The legislature last year self-imposed a deadline of this year to act to end the reliance on local school levies to fund public schools. The state is currently in contempt of court and amassing a $100,000-per-day fine for failing to provide the court with a plan to achieve full funding.

‘We will not forget who we are'

Near the end of his speech, Inslee made a veiled reference to President-elect Donald Trump and the new Republican Congress.

“No matter what happens in that Washington, here in this Washington we will not forget who we are,” the governor told the packed chamber. “We will not turn our back on the progress we have made. Our commitment to equal rights and human dignity will not be diminished one iota.”

Inslee also vowed to fight back as Congress prepares to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Throughout the 23-minute speech Democrats applauded and at times gave Inslee a standing ovation while Republicans mostly sat and applauded tepidly, if at all. The joint session ended with a rendition of “America the Beautiful” sung by folk star and Washington native Judy Collins.

In a Republican response to Inslee’s speech, state Rep. Gina McCabe emphasized job creation, education funding and fiscal restraint.

“Success in and for our schools shouldn’t solely be measured by the amount of dollars in the system,” McCabe said.

Just before his speech, Inslee was formally sworn in for his second term. Also sworn-in were five newly elected statewide officials: Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, State Treasurer Duane Davidson, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and State Auditor Pat McCarthy.

McCarthy, a Democrat, takes over from outgoing Auditor Troy Kelley who was indicted while in office for alleged financial crimes related to his past business practices. Kelley faces a second federal trial this year after his first trial last spring ended with the jury deadlocking on all but one count. The jury found Kelley not guilty of lying to the IRS.

Kelley’s parting shot

In an all-staff email obtained by the Northwest News Network, Kelley thanked the auditor’s staff for its dedication during a tumultuous time. He also criticized his fellow elected officials and the media.

“The politicians and the local tabloid press have not been fair to this office over the past two years,” Kelley wrote.

In the email, Kelley also revealed that he has been in a dispute with the Department of Retirement Systems regarding his months-long leave from the office in 2015 following his indictment. At issue was how much money he would have to repay in interest for the time he was vacant from the office in order to retain his retirement benefits.

Kelley wrote in his email that the issue was recently resolved in his favor.

Kelley also noted that for the past 14 months he and his children have not been eligible for state health benefits due to a ruling by the state’s Health Care Authority.

Kelley returned to work at the Auditor’s office in December 2015, prior to his first trial, after several lawmakers said they intended to try to impeach him.

His email addresses two other issues as well. First, was an ongoing investigation by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson into Kelley’s hiring of a former business associate to work part-time from California for the state auditor’s office. Kelley called the inquiry a “very expensive and odd two-year political investigation of our office,” but encouraged staff to cooperate with the Attorney General.

He also urged the auditor’s office not to adopt a new email retention policy that he said would allow any employee to decide when to permanently delete an email.

“This proposed policy change is clearly illegal for litigation matters, and is clearly wrong for the state to avoid disclosing public records to our citizens under the Public Disclosure Act,” Kelley wrote.

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."