For all the problems with K-12 education funding in Washington state (and let's be honest, there are some awfully big problems), there is one thing that the state does extremely right: We fund our schools predominantly at the state level rather than at the local level. On average, about three quarters of K-12 school funding comes from the state, with only about a quarter coming from local taxpayers. In some other states, these numbers are reversed.
The result is that while there are funding disparities both between districts and within them, there is much more K-12 parity within Washington State than in much of the rest of the nation. (I'm not excusing the inequity that is there, just pointing out that there is less compared to many other states.)
This is arguably very good public policy... assuming there is the political will to raise the revenue necessary to fund all our schools at an adequate level, rather than allowing a lack of funding to drag all our schools down. It is also a policy that appears to enjoy near universal bipartisan support. For example, you never hear rural Republicans arguing to get state government off their backs and let their public schools go it alone.
But, you know, this is also a policy that implicitly embraces massive redistribution of wealth, a concept normally anathema to conservative politicians. Wealthy regions like the Seattle metropolitan area disproportionately fund state government, while rock-solid Republican regions like those in rural Eastern Washington get many more dollars back from the state than they send to Olympia. It is, dare I say socialist programs like "levy equalization," that keep the funding of their schools roughly on par with ours, regardless of whether their voters support the taxes necessary to pay for them.
But good intentions and court orders can only go so far.
So here's some helpful advice to public school boosters in the less wealthy parts of the state: You can either support urban Democrats in our efforts to tax ourselves to amply pay for the education of all our state's children, or you can prepare for an era of growing inequity. The statutory cap on local school levies may never disappear, but there are many ways to get around it, from Seattle's Families & Education Levy to the millions of dollars a year that PTA's in affluent schools and districts raise to supplement the woeful lack of state school funding. Seattle, for example, is wealthy enough to fund universal high quality preschool on our own—in fact, doing so would inevitably cost our taxpayers substantially less than a comparable state-funded program.
And given the lack of support from the rest of the state for raising the tax dollars necessary to fund public education at the level we want and need, this is exactly the route we will eventually take. We don't want to disadvantage children born in property-tax-poor districts, but our first obligation is to our own children. As parents, I'm sure you understand that. So if you won't let us raise the revenue necessary to amply provide for the education of all our children, then we will find a way to do it for our own.
If there is a lesson to learn from Olympia's utter refusal to address the McCleary decision, it's that local school districts cannot look to Olympia to fix their funding problems. Fortunately for Seattle, we're rich, so we can afford to address our own needs. But if that is the path we are forced to take, it can't help but erode our support for a state K-12 funding system that, for all its problems, has long been one of the most equitable in the nation.
com·pro·mise [kom-pruh-mahyz] noun
1. a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.
2. the result of such a settlement.
State house and senate Democrats released a new budget proposal yesterday that they claim to be a "significant compromise" over previous Democratic budget proposals. Maybe. I guess. You know, depending on how you define the word "compromise."
As I understand the word, it implies having a good faith negotiating partner on the other side of the table available to compromise with. Otherwise, simply giving in to the other side's demands is less of a compromise and more a concession. And even as such, it's unlikely that the Democrats' concessions go nearly far enough to meet the Republicans' inflexible demands.
This new proposal spends about $816 million less than the previously passed house budget, the bulk of the savings shaved from K-12 education spending—cuts largely made necessary by dropping a proposed extension of about $620 million worth of expiring business taxes. That said, Democrats have also introduced a companion measure, the Education Investment Act, that softens the blow by eliminating seven business exemptions worth $255 million, and redirecting that money to the Education Legacy Trust Fund.
With the Education Investment Act, the house budget would add $959 million to K-12 spending above the 2011-2013 budget, without the act it would add $704 million. The original house budget would have added $1.27 billion as a down payment on the McCleary decision.
So yeah, when it comes to taxes, the Democrats have made a bunch of concessions. But will that be enough to get the Republicans to give a little something too?
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said in a short statement that he was disappointed by the House budget proposal but did not specify which portions he was concerned about.
"We in the Senate will continue to work with our House colleagues to seek a workable compromise, but we will not let political expediency stand in the way of fulfilling our obligation to provide for our schools," he said in the written statement.
What a load of shit.
What has Senator Tom and his colleagues so disappointed is the fact that the Democratic budget still includes $159 million from closing a loophole in the voter-approved estate tax, and $161 million from a telecom tax reform that is broadly supported by the telecom industry. The Republicans said no new taxes and they mean no new taxes (even though the estate tax isn't new, and failure to pass the telecom tax reform could expose the state to more than $800 million in litigation liability).
Republicans want a budget agreement with no new revenue. But they also want an agreement that punishes workers with unnecessary workers' compensation and pension reforms, and that punishes teachers by essentially allowing school principals to fire them at will. And they're not going to let "political expediency" (like an economy-wrecking government shutdown) get in their way.
And if that's their idea of "compromise," then compromise isn't possible.
You wouldn't know it from his usual deadpan demeanor, but Governor Jay Inslee says he is "shocked"—shocked—to find Senate Republicans "focusing on 210 multimillion dollar estates ... instead of focusing on a million children."
Inslee's shock stems from the Senate majority's refusal to fix a "technical glitch" in Washington's voter-approved estate tax law, in order to address the recent Bracken decision, which invalidated the tax on (non-farm) estates of married couples in excess of $2 million. At stake is $160 million in revenue through 2015, all of it dedicated to the state's Education Legacy Trust Fund.
Speaking at press availability in the state Capitol today, Inslee says that he is "extremely concerned and disappointed" that "the Senate majority has voted to eliminate taxes on about 210 multimillion estates a year rather than to fund education." Also, says Inslee, he is "surprised and disappointed."
"That position is a huge impediment to being able to reach a fruitful resolution to this budget," Inslee warned. "Both sides need to compromise ... but we cannot move forward in this effort while reducing revenue."
And time is running out. This week the Department of Revenue started processing about 70 refund requests, and will begin mailing $40 million to $50 million worth of checks starting next week. "Once we issue refunds, the state will not be able to recover that money even if the Legislature passes an estate tax fix and makes it retroactive," DOR spokesman Mike Gowrylow explains via email:
The Department has not been processing refund requests so far in deference to the Legislature, which could act to fix the loophole created by the Bracken decision in which married couple using QTIPS could avoid paying estate tax on the death of the second spouse while the estates of single or divorced individuals would be taxable. However, several recent Superior Court judges have ordered the Department to make refunds and our legal advice is that we can no longer postpone processing these requests.
So that's the choice. Fix the loophole now—like, this week—or kiss goodbye to $50 million at a time when the state is already falling billions short of funding its constitutional "paramount duty" to educate our children. Even if they manage to fix the loophole in a budget agreement at the close of the special session next week, it'll be too late. That money will be gone.
And that's just plain stupid. There's absolutely no rational reason to exempt heirs of married couples from a tax that heirs of single or divorced individuals have to pay. This is just anti-tax, anti-child, pro-wealthy Republican ideology at its worst.
Yesterday, Goldy posted that Washington has the second-worst funded public college system in the US, and that Bill Lyne of the United Faculty of Washington State has said: "Everybody knows we’re killing our colleges, nobody seems to be willing or able to do anything about it."
There is one proposed solution on the table, but it's full of thorns—a bill to raise the tuition of international students by 20 percent. That's a chunk of change. House Democrats such as Rodney Tom (a co-sponsor of the bill) support the idea as a way to raise $59.2 million in the next two years.
But state colleges and community colleges, some of the most popular schools for international students in the country, are saying (not without reason) that these students can go anywhere in the world and that the tax might price Washington schools out of the shiny-US-diploma market. The schools also note that money from the international-student tax would go directly into the general fund—so the schools get more expensive, have to work harder to attract international students, and the state gets all the money.
From Inside Higher Ed:
“Right now, international students actually subsidize Washington State residents,” said Margaret Shepherd, UW’s director of state relations. “We have used the revenue generated from both nonresident and international tuition to make up for the loss of state support or to help enhance the educational experience for all of our students, and a primary concern with this proposal is that the revenue that’s generated from international students actually goes to subsidize other institutions and other higher education programs from which they don’t receive a benefit.”
Green River Community College, Seattle Central Community College, Edmonds Community College, and Bellevue College (formerly known as Bellevue Community College) are the 10th, 12th, 14th, and 20th most popular destinations in the US for international students seeking associate's degrees. (North Seattle and Shoreline also make the top 40 list.)
But schools' popularity with international students is controversial all on its own.
In the wake of the I-5 bridge collapse, the progressive activist group Fuse put together an online petition, urging state legislators to "Fix our crumbling roads and bridges!"
"The shocking bridge collapse in Mount Vernon reinforces the need to fix our state's crumbing infrastructure," the petition reads. "It is critical that you support a transportation package that prioritizes repairing our structurally deficient roads and bridges to keep our families safe and our businesses moving."
Hard to read that as a controversial request, unless, of course, you are state Representative "Angry Ed" Orcutt (R-Kalama), the ranking Republican on the house transportation committee. Via email, Orcutt responds defensively to petitioners, objecting to any effort to "leverage more tax dollars" in response to the Skagit River bridge collapse:
[I]t is clear that the reason for the collapse was due to a collision with the super structure of the bridge — not a lack of structural integrity of the bridge. The bridge would indeed be standing today had the truck's load NOT rammed the super structure of the bridge. In fact, 11 of the 12 sections of the bridge are still standing.
Hear that? Almost 92 percent of the bridge is still standing! So quit your whining.
Yesterday I suggested that when prioritizing transportation spending, we need to look at our transportation infrastructure as whole rather than just focusing on individual structures. But Orcutt takes Olympia's myopia to a new extreme, defiantly pointing to the 11 sections of the bridge left standing as a shining example of a state transportation system well funded.
The problem is, 92 percent of a bridge isn't a bridge. And as a result, an I-5 corridor missing just 8 percent of one span is no longer a corridor.
If Republicans are so allergic to the notion of raising additional revenue that they'll reach to such ridiculous rhetorical extremes in defense of the status quo, then it's hard to see how there is any chance of political compromise coming out of our divided legislature.
[Orcutt's complete email after the jump.]
I couldn't really say it any better than Bill Lyne of the United Faculty of Washington State, so I'll just steal his words:
Everybody knows we’re killing our colleges, nobody seems to be willing or able to do anything about it. The business community moans and groans about STEM graduates but resists closing even the most obsolete tax loophole to pay for them. The Seattle Times puts half-page ads for its wonderful Greater Good Campaign directly opposite editorials that relentlessly describe state employees (i.e. the people who work in our colleges) as the root of all evil. And legislators’ responses range from sincere concern to puffy demagoguery, but nobody seems to be able to create the political will to generate the real resources necessary to stop the slipping.
The special session stumbles along with three budget proposals on the table, none of which stops the erosion that the governor is worried about. Technically, none of the three budgets makes new cuts to higher education. But they all enshrine the new normal of the old cuts, leaving college and university base funding well below where it was in 2009, and doing nothing to address the growing problems of restricted access, larger classes, and increased time to graduation.
The rallying cry against raising new revenue is largely based on the assertion that higher taxes would hurt our state's economic competitiveness. But it's hard to see how Washington remains competitive far into the future while being home to one of the worst funded public university systems in the nation.
In the end, we get the government we pay for.
The Seattle Times editorial board is both right and wrong in its assessment of state transportation spending in the wake of the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapse. Right in its call to prioritize spending more on "infrastructure maintenance" and less on "sexy new projects," but wrong in its narrow definition of "infrastructure maintenance."
Immediately, some politicians began to suggest the collapse of the 165-foot span over the Skagit River was a case study on the cost of deferred infrastructure maintenance.
But that narrative does not seem to fit the facts. Instead, the collapse, as described by state officials, suggests an obsolete bridge design exploited by a freak accident.
By all means, Olympia should focus on repairing or replacing our 135 "structurally deficient" state bridges first. Those pose the most immediate threat to public safety and commerce. But even a well-maintained "functionally obsolete" bridge (as the Skagit River span was officially designated) should be beneath the standards of Washington State. Far from a "freak accident," a WSDOT report finds that the bridge had previously suffered a number of "high load hits," with at least eight sections where the steel was bent or dented by hard hits from trucks carrying loads too tall to clear the bridge.
Should replacing a 58-year-old structurally sufficient—but functionally obsolete—bridge like the Skagit River span be considered a sexy new project? I don't think so. But either way, it would be a mistake to lose sight of our transportation infrastructure as a whole for the sake of focusing on individual structures. Even a writer at the car-hating Stranger will admit that sometimes expanding capacity can be just as critical to maintaining public safety and commerce as maintaining the structures we already have.
But the bigger lesson to learn from the Skagit River bridge collapse is that government matters. This is a reminder of the irreplaceable role our tax dollars play in maintaining the quality of life and economic prosperity of our state. The debate the Seattle Times raises about transportation spending priorities is one well worth having, but reprioritizing alone cannot fix all our problems if there isn't enough money to go around. For there is also a strong argument to make that we are not spending enough money as a state—on roads, on bridges, on transit, on education, and on other crucial public infrastructure and services—to either meet our current needs or to prepare for the future. And it would be foolish to debate spending without debating revenue.
That is a debate I'd hope the editorial boards would welcome too.
Anyone who can talk about the dance tax and regressive taxation like this wins in my book:
Thanks to tipper Jeremy!
Not a coherent post, just a few quick thoughts about last night's collapse of an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon:
Anyway, more for sure after I've had some time to talk to the players. And Happy Memorial Day to all of you with plains to head north of Mount Vernon this weekend!
The state workers’ compensation reform, Senate Bill 5127, was passed by the Senate 30-19 and hung up in the House. It needs to pass in this session.
... Passage of this bill will also offset much, and perhaps all, of the $1.8 billion extra that the state Department of Labor and Industries says will be needed over the next 10 years to put the state disability funds on a prudent basis.
Without the bill, the state will have to raise taxes on payrolls, which raises the price of creating and sustaining jobs.
These are two factual assertions, neither of which are supported by, you know, actual facts. Instead, the editors' research apparently consists of credulously aping they hyperbolic assertions of an out-of-date year-old post on the Washington Business Alliance run blog, Washington State Wire... assertions that were immediately refuted in the post's comment thread by L&I Director Judy Schurke:
Erik Smith’s article mischaracterizes a number of points at yesterday’s Workers’ Compensation Advisory Committee special meeting.
First, L&I is NOT contemplating a 19 percent increase nor did we say we need to “beef up” the contingency reserve to $2.3 billion. Further, L&I does not have a budget gap of $3.1 billion.
The "$1.8 billion extra" the editorial claims that "[L&I] says will be needed" appears to come from Smith's assertion that "L&I figures it needs to beef that reserve back up to $2.3 billion"—an assertion that L&I's Schurke explicitly denies. "To hit that target it needs an additional $1.7 billion," writes Smith. But these were "theoretical financial scenarios" put forth as part of a larger discussion about how to rebuild workers compensation reserves, insists Schurke; they were never meant to represent any sort of hard "target."
Further, these theoretical financial scenarios were constructed a year ago, back when workers' compensation reserves were considerably smaller. As I recently posted, Washington state's workers' compensation system turned a $250 million surplus in 2012 while bumping its reserves from $580 million in June 2012 to $953 million by the end of December. Even if L&I was shooting for $2.3 billion in reserves (and it's not), the additional funds necessary to hit that nonexistent target have been shaved by about a half billion dollars since the Seattle Times year-old numbers were first devised.
State Senator Sharon Brown (R-Kennewick) has filed to retain her seat in a special election to be held in November. Brown, who was appointed in January to fill the seat vacated by former state Senator Jerome Delvin, made a name for herself in her freshman session by introducing legislation that would make it legal for florists and other businesses to discriminate against gays. You know, as long as they are florists of faith.
But while Brown's election bid isn't really news, I'd say this little tidbit is:
Senator Brown is endorsed by all 22 of her fellow Republican Senators, as well as Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom (D-Medina) and Coalition Caucus Member and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Sheldon (D-Shelton), and endorsed by former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi.
That's right, Senator Rodney Tom, who presumably plans to run for reelection as a Democrat to his socially-progressive Medina/Kirkland/Redmond/Bellevue district seat, has endorsed the Republican who introduced legislation that would make it legal to discriminate against gays. Because, I guess, that's the sort of principled bipartisanship we need more of in Olympia.
As Peter Callaghan of the Tacoma News Tribune reports:
GOP Senate leaders say Sen. Mike Carroll's recov from bone-marrow transplant will prevent him from being in Oly for 30 day special. #WALEG
— Peter Callaghan (@CallaghanPeter) May 13, 2013
My sincere best wishes to Senator Carroll in his recovery. But... if Carroll—a Republican—is absent from Olympia for the duration of the special session, that would leave control of the state senate in a 24-24 tie. Which would give Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen—a Democrat—the tie-breaking vote. And that means that Democrats could effectively take back control of the state senate, and with it the power to control the senate agenda throughout the special session.
As far as the budget goes, that won't necessarily make a huge difference. There are enough fiscally conservative Democrats outside of Rodney Tom's "coalition caucus" to make substantial movement on revenue very difficult. But when it comes to some other high-profile bills—like the Reproductive Parity Act, the State Dream Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other election reforms—Carroll's absence should give Democrats the power to push these bills to the floor and pass them.
Assuming Democrats are willing to use this power.
I've got a call in to deposed Senate Majority Leader Ed Murray to ask him what he plans to do in Carroll's absence, and I'm crossing my fingers that his answer is "play hardball." Some will argue that the Democrats would be acting in bad faith to seize back control in the wake of a senator's illness, but what about keeping faith with the voters who put the Democrats in control of the senate prior to Tom's betrayal? And if Democrats won't do what it takes to pass the Reproductive Parity and State Dream acts out of some fit of unrequited collegiality, then won't Democrats ultimately be responsible for their failure?
It'll be interesting to see if Murray can show the leadership in Olympia that he touts on the campaign trail.
Last week, the governor signed a bill bringing Washington State's rape laws into the 21st century by finally eliminating the "marital exemption" to our third-degree rape and indecent liberties laws. The law used to say that these crimes had been committed unless the victim was married to their rapist, in which case what had been a crime was magically rendered not a crime. Which is clearly fucked.
Nevertheless, some people—Slog commenters, state Senator Elizabeth Scott (Rrrrr-Monroe)—were confused.
Senator Scott, who was the sole NO vote on this bill (as she likes to brag, she's a BA-holding linguist), defended her vote by saying, "This bill requires absolutely no proof that rape occurred—because there couldn't be any." Scott sent that in an e-mail to a constituent. WRONG. Totally wrong. This bill, in fact, only strikes language saying that if what occurred is legally defined as third-degree rape, then it doesn't matter whether your husband raped you or a stranger did, it's still a crime. Whether or not she believes in the existence of third-degree rape isn't actually relevant here.
"As a linguist, I hate it when words are twisted beyond recognition. Rape used to mean rape," she continued.
First: HAHAHA, WTF.
Second: "Rape" still means "rape," whatever your bullshit linguistic red herring argument is supposed to mean. "Consent" is about communication, and we're not the Borg and we're not telepathic; we have communication breakdowns. Sometimes a rape doesn't look like a made-for-TV movie with a brutal stranger accosting you in a park. Sometimes your rapist is your friend. Sometimes you've had sex before. Sometimes you feel like it's your fault. But that's why there are laws. There's a legal definition of crimes, and there are lawyers and judges and juries involved in deciding whether or not a sexual encounter is against the law.
But, since people were asking, what exactly is third-degree rape?
I took my question to David Martin, a King County prosecutor who heads the domestic violence unit. Third-degree rape is "everything short of using force," he explained. "If someone says 'no,' and you do it anyway, should that be a crime? What legislatures all over the United States have said is 'no' means 'no.'"
People talk about fighting off an attacker—but is that the only way to deny consent?
"Should a victim have to fight? Do they have to use violence?" he asks rhetorically. "Or do they get to say, 'I get to do with my body what I feel is appropriate'? If you tell someone, 'You can’t come in my home, I have property rights,' if they do, they’re committing trespassing." You don't have to physically fight them for that to be a crime. Why should that be different when it comes to your body?
For all the bitching from Republicans and their corporate patrons about the allegedly crushing burden of our state's workers compensation system and workplace safety regulations, at least it's not the workers themselves who are being crushed. In fact, a new AFL-CIO report finds that Washington state has the third lowest workplace death toll in the nation: 1.9 fatalities a year per 100,000 workers, compared to a national average of 3.5.
So congratulations to Washington businesses and workers for making our state a relatively safe place to work. But also—and here's something I'm guessing they don't hear too often—three cheers to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for a regulatory job well done!
It is hard to imagine how the legislature manages to write a budget without some sort of revenue increase. So the question is not if senate Republicans will ultimately cave on their Norquist-like no-new-tax pledge, but rather by how much, and what will they demand in return? And whatever they demand, it will no doubt involve fucking workers—for example the workers compensation "reform" bill that thankfully died in the state house during the regular session.
Republicans and their corporate patrons have been pushing to reduce workers compensation benefits in order to stave off massive rate hikes they warned might be necessary under post-Great Recession worst case scenarios. But those worst case scenarios haven't been playing out. In fact, Washington's workers compensation system turned a $250 million surplus in 2012 while bumping its Contingency Reserve funds from $580 million in June 2012 to $953 million by the end of the year. The improvements largely come from higher investment returns.
In other words, Republicans are attempting to impose hardship on workers in order to fix a problem that doesn't exist. Kinda like Rodney Tom's campaign to eliminate the GET program, or the Republicans' broader efforts to end state pension programs that are among the best funded in the nation.
It will be tempting for Democrats to give in to the Republicans' anti-worker demands in order to craft a compromise budget, but one hopes they have the smarts and the courage to call bullshit on this bullshit when bullshit it is.
Well, he finally gave the Union-Bulletin an interview yesterday, and he says of the bill in question, SB 5927, that it's gone through some changes and he "probably did not read the bill as well as I should have."
He also explained why he'd ignored them before: "He was working in his yard and unable to hear his cell phone over the din of the lawn mower, and later in the day he'd left his phone in a jacket at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds." (No word on why he ignored all the other requests for comment.) The day this all happened, last Friday, he did take at least one call—from his staffer, with whom he says he "had a conversation about treating people appropriately when they call."
He won't identify the staffer in question, but says, "When you see him interact with the disability people, you would be totally impressed... He is a very, very nice person."
In an editorial elsewhere in the paper yesterday (they have a one-article limit if you're not a subscriber, sorry), they mention that in his conversation with their reporter, "Hewitt said his staffer was prodded by The Stranger until he lost his temper and made the inappropriate comment."
Nice try, Senator, but just to clarify: All I did was call your office to ask for comment on a report from Seattle resident Jay Castro, who called all the bill's sponsors that day and had the offensive conversation with your staffer himself. The only "prodding" I did was to ask your mystery staffer if it had happened.
Castro, for his part, has now sent a letter to Hewitt, the other bill sponsors, and his senator and representatives in Olympia asking that Hewitt have a little chat with him:
I would like to meet with Senator Hewitt, and the other bill sponsors, to discuss my concerns in person. I would also like to briefly share my story of being a teenage civil rights activist in the 90's in Spokane, so you can better understand why this bill is so harmful. I would like to hear from Senator Hewitt himself that his position is in fact not what Staffer Doe stated to me on the phone. An apology to a reporter is simply insufficient to rectify the situation.
He's posted a full copy of his letter online here. Castro tells me, "I want to see that bill withdrawn."
Until yesterday, "But we're married!" was a perfectly adequate defense in our state to the charge of rape in the third degree, as well as the euphemistically named crime "indecent liberties." Fortunately, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill on Wednesday closing that awful loophole in Washington State law.
Use of force isn't a prerequisite of being convicted of rape in the third degree, which simply requires that the victim "did not consent... to sexual intercourse with the perpetrator and such lack of consent was clearly expressed by the victim's words or conduct," or that a suspect exhibited a "threat of substantial unlawful harm to property rights of the victim." But until yesterday, it also required that the victim be "not married to the perpetrator." Marital rape is a form of partner abuse, and I can only imagine the horror of reporting what would otherwise be a third-degree rape by your spouse only to discover that it was not, in fact, a crime.
Like many states, we eliminated marriage as a defense against first- and second-degree rape in the '80s. This new law will eliminate jury instructions like number two, here:
Thank god, Washington. Never have I been so happy to see a good old-fashioned strikethrough.
After four predictably dysfunctional months, Washington State's 2013 legislative session ended tonight without passing crucial operations, capital, or transportation budgets, prompting Governor Jay Inslee to call a special session to begin May 13.
The state's current two-year budget ends June 30, so a special session has long been inevitable. The only question was when it would start. Word is that Inslee hopes the two-week break will serve as a cooling off period, after which budget negotiations might restart in earnest. The first couple weeks of last year's special session was notably unproductive.
On a tangential note, the two-week break will also give state Senator Ed Murray (D-Seattle) an opportunity to raise some money for his mayoral bid. State lawmakers are prohibited from fundraising during session.
Following up on a post I wrote earlier today, in which a state senator's staffer told a concerned voter that "gays can just grow their own food" if grocery stores are allowed to discriminate against them, the staffer now says "that's not representative of Senator Hewitt's views on the matter," though he won't explain or elaborate.
I just got off the phone with the senator's office (that's 360-786-7630). It turns out I just needed to call from a different area code to get through.
The staffer, whose voice sounded pretty familiar, still wouldn't tell me his name. (The only legislative staffer listed on Senator Mike Hewitt's website is Barrett Pryce, but we can't say with 100 percent certainty that he's the one taking calls today.) I told him I thought he'd hung up on me earlier. He said it was "probably a poorly handled call." I reminded him of our earlier conversation and asked him about his response to Mr. Castro.
"That's not accurate," the unidentified staffer told me. "Half of that is accurate." Care to tell me which half? "No," he answered. "It was a poor response to a question, that's really all I want to say about that. He caught me at a bad time; I'm not interested in answering hypotheticals. It was a combative call. Patience was lost, mistakes were made, and that's it."
I told him I thought the question asked was a legitimate one—what should people do if a business they're trying to patronize turns them away? That question isn't totally hypothetical; the bill Senator Hewitt is co-sponsoring could make it a reality. He said he had "no statement on the proposal whatsoever," only "apologies for a poorly handled call... A poorly handled call that's not representative of Senator Hewitt's views on the matter," he clarified.
"So you won't identify yourself, you won't tell me which half of the reported conversation is not accurate, and you won't tell me the senator's views on the bill he's co-sponsoring?" I asked. He confirmed that, and then I hung up on him. Ha-ha, just kidding—that would be unprofessional.
This time next year King County Metro could very well be finalizing a 17 percent cut in bus service, eliminating as much as a third of its routes while reducing or revising service on another third. And many of the routes left unchanged won't be left untouched, absorbing higher ridership and more crowding.
And this isn't some scare tactic. These are the cuts Metro will likely make based on the analysis in its 2012 Service Guidelines Report should the state legislature fail to approve the local option taxing authority necessary to close a looming $75 million budget gap. And days from the end of regular legislative session, that authorization has yet to come.
"All we ask from the legislature is the freedom to responsibly invest," explains King County Executive Dow Constantine. "King County is prosperous because of investments in things like bus service and roads," says Constantine, "and with that investment the rest of the state will prosper."
Specifically, county and city leaders have asked the legislature for the authority to impose up to a 1.5 percent MVET (a tax on the value of your car). Revenue would be split 60/40 between Metro and roads, with the road money distributed to the cities and unincorporated King County proportionate to population. At it's full value, a 1.5 percent MVET would raise about $85 million a year for Metro and another $55 million to help close the region's growing deferred road maintenance backlog.
"We have a very significant backlog of maintenance needs," explains Constantine chief of staff Sung Yang. "And the longer you put off maintaining the roads, the bigger the cost."
The transportation funding package passed by the Democratic-controlled state house includes a local MVET option—for King County only—but with the requirement that it be approved by a countywide vote of the people. "We would have clearly preferred the ability to do this councilmanically," says Yang. But the Republican-controlled senate so far hasn't done even that.
Here's Sen. Ed Murray's (D-Seattle), statement on SB 5927, the bill that would give business owners the right to deny service to gay customers because of their religious beliefs:
“This bill represents a pathetic attempt to undo basic civil rights protections that were enshrined in law well before the gay and lesbian movement even started.
“We as a society have evolved far beyond finding it acceptable to say who can sit at the lunch counter and who cannot sit at the lunch counter. The whole notion that a business should have the right to discriminate against its customers is abhorrent to us as Americans, and was settled decades ago. The history books are closed on this issue.
“At the beginning of session, Republicans said that all social issues were off the table because the budget was their priority. It takes someone truly shameless to say that in January and then, with three days left in session and without a deal on an operating, capital or transportation budget anywhere in sight, to introduce a bill that goes into our civil rights laws and decides who gets served and who doesn’t get served. Truly shameless.”
When Slog reader Jay Castro called state senator Mike Hewitt's (R-Walla Walla) office this morning to ask about Senator Hewitt's co-sponsorship of SB 5927, a bill that would amend our anti-discrimination laws to allow people to discriminate against gays and lesbians because of their "sincerely held religious beliefs," Castro says he was hit with a surprising response: Gay people should be prepared to fend for themselves.
Castro's aware that this bill isn't likely to pass but he tells me, "Regardless of if it's just a publicity stunt, it's my livelihood and my life that's on the line." He added: "I fought very hard for gay rights in Spokane in the '90s, as a kid," and he was horrified to wake up to headlines about this bill. So he spent his morning calling its sponsors to let them know. During the phone calls, he says he asked staffers some variation of the question "What are rural gays supposed to do if the only gas station or grocery store for miles won't sell them gas and food?"
Castro says the staffer at Hewitt's office surprised him with the answer "Well, gay people can just grow their own food." When Castro then asked the male staffer his name, he refused to identify himself, reportedly responding, "I don't have to tell you that," then, "Don't call here again," and hanging up the phone. This happened at around 11:00 this morning.
About an hour after Castro's call, I called Hewitt's office myself to find out if—and more importantly why—government staffers are telling gay people to "grow their own food" if straight Christians don't want to sell them groceries. My conversation was brief, to say the least. When I asked about the bill, the male staffer who answered the phone immediately directed me to a spokesperson for the state Republicans. When I clarified that I was calling to ask about Hewitt's sponsorship of the bill in particular, he said he had no comment.
Then I asked him about the conversation Castro had just had with someone from that office. Did he have any comment on that? "I don't know about that," he said, and hung up the phone. When I called back, someone picked up the phone and then hung it up again. Same thing when I called from another number.
Weird! I guess their phone's broken? Maybe you feel like testing it out yourself: 360-786-7630.
Like I said, this bill ain't gonna pass—because the votes aren't there and because holy shit this bill is backwards and ridiculous—so we didn't make much hay of it on Slog. It's hateful and embarrassing, but it functions more as a roll call of the senators who'd sponsor an awful, bigoted bill like this, and that's helpful, at least.
But confidential to Hewitt's office: If you care to call me back and politely explain your stance, I almost guarantee I won't hang up on you.
When T-Mobile announced its new "uncarrier" plans, a lot of mobile phone industry observers shrugged.
T-Mobile was eliminating the industry-standard two-year contract, but it was also eliminating the device subsidies to which US consumers have long grown accustomed. For example, an iPhone 5 that would cost you $199 with a 24-month commitment on AT&T or Verizon could now be had from T-Mobile for $579 with no contract. Or, T-Mobile would hand you the phone for a $99 downpayment plus $20 a month for 24 months—if you cancelled your service, you'd be responsible for a lump-sum payoff on the balance of your phone.
The new T-Mobile plans typically came out to be about $20 a month or so cheaper than AT&T or Verizon, so it was kind of a wash, with the $20 monthly phone payment largely offsetting the typical savings on the new "uncarrier" plans. And the lump-sum payment due on canceling your service was functionally no different from early termination fees the other carriers still charge.
That last detail apparently escaped the attention of a lot of new T-Mobile customers:
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has ordered T-Mobile to correct deceptive advertising that promised consumers no annual contracts while carrying hidden charges for early termination of phone plans.
Today, the Attorney General's Office filed a court order signed by T-Mobile and effective nationwide that will ensure the company clearly communicates the limitations of its new “no-contract” wireless service plans and allows customers duped by the deceptive ads to exit their contracts with no penalty.
“As Attorney General, my job is to defend consumers, ensure truth in advertising, and make sure all businesses are playing by the rules,” Ferguson said. “My office identified that T-Mobile was failing to disclose a critical component of their new plan to consumers, and we acted quickly to stop this practice and protect consumers across the country from harm.”
T-Mobile has agreed to offer full refunds with no fee for canceling service to customers who purchased phones between March 26 and April 25. The company has also agreed to clarify its advertising so as not to deceive consumers about early termination, and to instruct its salespeople to properly inform customers. T-Mobile will also pay the state $26,046 in attorneys fees. And Ferguson makes an early mark as a pro-consumer attorney general.
All that said, there are some customers for whom T-Mobile's new plans offer significant savings: Those who routinely keep their phones for longer than two years, and those who prefer to buy unlocked phones. So while I'm with the AG that T-Mobile's claims were a bit deceptive, it's still nice to have T-Mobile's new plans as an option.
This morning state representatives voted 6-3 to approve to change the state's definition of marijuana in order to help state prosecutors prove marijuana-related cases in court. The vote on HB 2056 took place during an emergency meeting of the House Government Accountability and Oversight committee, during which county prosecutors argued that it was nearly impossible to prove what was marijuana in a crime lab or court.
You see, last year's passage of Initiative 502 defined "marijuana" as all parts of the marijuana plant "with a THC concentration greater than three percent on a dry weight basis." Anything with less THC content, as Ben Livingston notes in this week's paper, is simply considered unregulated cannabis. However, today prosecutors argued that the definition didn't take into account the total concentration of THC in a plant—both the psychoactive THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and the lesser-known THCA (tetrahydro cannabinolic acid), which converts to THC with heat. That means that some plants with a high total THC concentration didn't meet the definition of marijuana, prosecutors explained.
HB 2056, which was drafted by the Washington Prosecutors Association, changes the definition of marijuana to include this total THC count when determining whether a substance is marijuana. I have a call in to Alison Holcomb, an ACLU lawyer who drafted I-502, to find out her take on the change.
Now that the bill's passed out of committee, legislators are looking for leadership pull it to the floor for a vote before the regular session ends on April 28.
"There will have to be another session," state Senator Ed Murray (D-Seattle) sighed. Of course there will.
His comment came at the tail end of a conversation on something else entirely (more on that later), but I just couldn't let Murray off the phone without asking the question. Five days before the end of the four-month regular session, budget negotiations between the House and the Senate have not even begun. And with the two budgets so far apart, there's no way five days is enough time to hammer out a compromise short of one side or the other totally caving.
So a special session there will be. Just like we always knew there would.
I may be the only member of the Capitol press corps to have never stepped foot in the Capitol this session, because honestly, what the fuck's the point? From the moment state Senator Rodney Tom (?-Medina) engineered his self-agrandizing leadership coup, handing control of the senate to the minority Republicans, this session was destined for jaw-grinding gridlock. Bills have passed, but few of much consequence. Sure, Governor Jay Inslee's climate change bill has been widely touted, but all that really does is create a commission to make future recommendations. Worthwhile, sure. But not exactly a dramatic reform.
Meanwhile, high profile bills like the Reproductive Parity Act and the State Dream Act have predictably died in committee in the senate despite having the votes to pass on the floor—deaths made inevitable by Senator Tom's selfish coup.
"The problem is that they don't know how to govern," laments Murray. True. But the problem is also more structural than that. Disliked and mistrusted by both parties, there was simply no way the ex-Republican/ex-Democrat Tom could assert a leadership role in a caucus in which he is not a member or overcome the ill will created amongst Democrats by Tom's betrayal.
But even more fundamentally, by dividing state government between a Republican-controlled senate and a Democratically-controlled house and governor's mansion, Tom's coup was a surefire recipe for a legislative standoff. Senate Republicans were dead set on using their committee chairmanships to block the house Democrats' agenda. House Democrats responded in kind.
So what's the point in covering the journey of a bill through one house when there's no way in hell it will ever see the light of day in the other? There isn't.
Everything about this stupid fucking pointless session has unfolded according to script, including the inevitable budget-deadlock-necessitated special session that will ultimately follow. Then, after weeks of inaction, shortly before Memorial Day, a deal will be struck that raises a little bit of revenue without calling it revenue, that claims a downpayment on McCleary that doesn't really make much of a downpayment on McCleary, that relies on accounting tricks that nobody will admit to be tricks, and that largely balances the budget on the backs of the young, the elderly, the poor, and the sick while congratulating themselves for protecting our state's most vulnerable.
And oh yeah. The budget will screw schoolteachers and other state workers. Nobody will deny that. Because, you know, fuck 'em.
Totally predictable. And totally pointless.
Republican state legislators, Democratic state legislators, and the governor all agree on something! From the Secretary of State's office:
Gov. Jay Inslee has signed legislation boosting the expense allowance for members of the state’s Electoral College, the party activists who cast the state’s electoral votes for the U.S. presidential ticket that wins the state popular vote. The rate had been unchanged since statehood.
Since statehood means, in this case, since 1891. Apparently, for 122 years the allowance for members of the Washington State Electoral College has been $5 a day for expenses plus 10 cents a mile for transportation costs. "In the early years," the Secretary of State's office explains, "the main cost was for a hotel room and a stable and hay for the horses carrying electors to and from Olympia."
Now the electors get "$61 a day for meals, $88 for lodging and 56.5 cents per mile for transportation." Which I guess still qualifies as lean management?
From Fuse's polling memo:
According to the results of our recent survey in Washington's 48th Legislative District, State Senator Rodney Tom's teaming with Republicans to create the Majority Coalition Caucus has resulted in significant damage to his standing. Indeed, Tom's ratings are the lowest that we have seen over the seven years we have conducted research in this district... Today, just one quarter of voters (25 percent) rate the job he is doing as state senator as excellent or good, while 44 percent give him just fair or poor job reviews, a -8 point net drop since last June.
They also point out that "when it comes to reelecting Tom, just 22 percent of voters would reelect him at this point while a plurality (41 percent) choose someone new." (The poll itself is here.)
I called Fuse's communications director Collin Jergens to ask about all their work—both serious and joking—keeping Senator Tom's feet to the fire. "Tom has been an obstacle to progress on all sorts of important legislation," Jergens said. "The Reproductive Parity Act, the Dream Act, background checks... We are trying to hold him accountable."
But accountable will hopefully turn into "unemployed" at some point soon, right? State Democratic Party chair Dwight Pelz says that's the plan: "The plan is to recruit a superior candidate, run an aggressive campaign, inform and remind people of Rodney Tom's duplicity, and defeat him in the primary." Ah! Simple. Pelz then called Tom a "hypocrite" and an "egoist," saying "it's about his vanity, and we don't think the voters are going to accept that."
Everyone is thoroughly pissed, and has been for a while. But the road to defeating him may be harder than you'd hope—even with his power-hungry back and forth across the aisle, he's not without support. As a commenter on my rant pointed out, the state Dems have started a "Rodney Tom Retirement Project," to which you can donate here. Maybe that's where some of our pissed-off energy goes?
Obviously, I'm just going to keep typing swears on the internet.
The Neighborhood Safe Streets Bill (which we've always called the "slow the fuck down on neighborhood streets" bill, since it gives cities the opportunity to slightly lower speed limits on nonarterial streets without doing costly and time-consuming traffic studies) just passed the state senate today.
"We were the absolute last bill before the senate cutoff," says Blake Trask, policy director at Bicycle Alliance of Washington. The bill's supporters started to think it had pretty much no chance—then, with an hour to go, they suddenly heard the bill might make it to the floor. It passed 45–2. "For it to be the last bill is something special," Trask says. "We can't thank Senators Billig and Frockt enough" for orchestrating its passage, he says, and also thanks the bill's house sponsor Rep. Cindy Ryu.
It's nice to see something good come out of Olympia for a second. If you've forgotten all about this pedestrian-and-bike-friendly bill, which had bipartisan support all along, a refresher from our yearly bill roundup is after the jump.