OLYMPIA — Lawmakers meeting to discuss the start of the 105-day legislative session on Thursday made it clear that education will be the No. 1 issue in Olympia this year.
The Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on education dollars has been hanging over their heads for more than a year, but it was obvious at The Associated Press Legislative Preview that education will truly overshadow every other issue before the Legislature this winter.
“McCleary is about moving education forward; it’s not just about dollars,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who will be the majority leader of the newly formed “majority coalition caucus” that includes the Senate’s 23 Republicans.
Legislative leaders said that besides funding, they also want to focus on student success, as well as the achievement gap between rich and poor children and among kids from different ethnic groups.
Sen. Ed Murray, the Senate Democratic leader, agreed: “We have to get at the opportunity gap, or we won’t move the needle.”
Democrats have a small majority in the chamber, controlling 26 of 49 seats. But with Tom and fellow Democrat Sen. Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch, recently agreeing to work with Senate Republicans, the coalition holds a 25-24 advantage.
Lawmakers are still working out how to share power between Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate and whether a bipartisan approach is workable before the legislative session begins Monday.
“What the citizens are interested in is governing. The bipartisan issue is an inside game,” Murray said.
But despite their ongoing discussions about who will chair Senate committees, both Murray and Tom said education would be a more important issue than politics.
“I’m just excited that education is being talked about as a central component of a legislative session,” Tom said, after reminiscing about some empty committee rooms of the past when education issues were being discussed.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said there’s no agreement in the Legislature about how to come up with more than $1 billion for education, as a down-payment on the McCleary decision. He predicted lawmakers would pull something together for the short-term and then start planning for a sustainable, long-term solution.
About 43 percent of the state budget — $13.6 billion — currently goes to public schools.
Various revenue ideas were tossed out during the hours-long preview: devoting future Internet sales tax revenue to education; using sales tax income from marijuana for schools; putting school buses into the transportation budget and using a gas tax to pay for school transportation; and reviving the levy swap idea that was reviled by some during the political campaign.
Gov.-elect Jay Inslee said he was open to any creative idea and promised “this is not going to be resolved overnight.”
Like Hunter, Inslee predicted it would take years to solve the education funding puzzle.
When asked if he had a dollar number he wanted to see infused into K-12 schools this year, Inslee said, “I have a number in my head, but I don’t have the money in my pocket.”
He talked about using economic growth, closing tax loopholes and government efficiency to cover some of the cost.
The Washington Supreme Court has given lawmakers until 2018 to fully fund basic education and the reform plans the Legislature has already passed, while making sure local school districts are not forced to make up for a lack in state money through the use of local tax levies.
Lawmakers have said they need to find more dollars for all-day kindergarten, student transportation and class-size reduction, as well as technology and equipment to supply schools of the 21st century.
Higher education also got a share of the attention on Thursday, with lawmakers and Inslee calling for a recommitment to the state’s public universities and more focus on sending Washington kids to college to fill science, technology and engineering jobs.
It’s a “crime against nature” not to have enough skilled workers for high-tech jobs, Inslee said.
AP reporters Rachel La Corte, Mike Baker and Chris Grygiel contributed to this story.