By: Dennis Box
It was a hot time to talk in the old town hall.
District legislators – Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and Reps. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, and Pat Sullivan, D-Covington – fielded questions from more than 200 people who packed a room at the Golden Steer Steak ‘n Rib House for the town hall meeting.
Questions ranged across the board – from school funding to taxes, car tabs to immigration.
Kent-area residents wanted to know how the Legislature plans to meet the mandate of the 2012 McCleary vs. State of Washington case. In 2012 the state Supreme Court ruled the state was not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to adequately fund basic education.
Legislators hope to come up with a bipartisan deal this session.
Hargrove said “funding proposals came out far earlier than they ever have before. Those are positive signs we are on the right road. We got some ways to go, but I think we are going to get there.”
Fain described the Senate proposal as a per pupil-weighted average, and the House proposal retains the prototypical model.
The senator said with the pupil-weighted average, “each student is going to get X amount of dollars for their education. The characteristic of the student in the system determines whether or not (the student) ends up getting more money. For example, English as a second language, or that student comes from poverty or is homeless or special needs, those are things that will increase the amount of money that student will receive from the state for education.”
Fain said in the current system the money is sent to the school districts through the prototypical model and also through a staff mix. Money goes out depending on how many years of experience a teacher has and how many degrees the adult has in the system.
“It is more of an adult-centered model as opposed to a student-centered model,” Fain said. “What that has created across the state is there is going to be a lot of districts that have lower incomes that have high needs and are harder to teach in … and those school districts with the most needs end up getting less money compared to some of the other districts.”
Fain said the core puzzle for the Legislature to solve is inequity between school districts. Auburn residents pay their school district about $4 for every $1,000 of assessed home value. A Seattle resident pays $1.24 for $1,000 of assessed value. He said the Senate plan brings all the local levies to about $1.80.
“It is rebalancing of a longstanding inequity we’ve seen for a long time,” Fain said. “That has created a lot of the problems we’ve seen for students who come from low-income communities but also for property owners who have been paying more than their fair share.”
Fain added, “We have to make sure, per not only the Supreme Court, but also because it is the right thing to do, the state, as a government, not the locals, pays for 100 percent of the cost of educating a student. It is the critical and constitutional question we have to solve this year.”
Sullivan said the House plan adds counselors to help students in the various transitions from grade to grade and to a career or college.
Sullivan cited Massachusetts as an example of a per pupil weighted model, but it uses a prototypical model as its base, which could be transferred into a model in our state.
“Now is not the time to say what’s wrong with their plan and what’s right with our plan,” Sullivan said. “Now is the time to resolve it. So the students in our state are given every opportunity to succeed. We’ve spent a couple weeks poking at their plan and they poked at our plan. Now we are getting together … meeting multiple times per week, and we are going to get the job done.”
Sullivan said it’s about equity.
“It absolutely is. It is about ensuring every student in our state, no matter where they come from — Eastern Washington, Western Washington, rich school district, poor school district — it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “We need to make sure they have the opportunity to be successful.”
Sullivan addressed a question of taxes to pay for programs. He said an income tax was off the table.
“The public is not going to support an income tax, and if that were part of our package to fund our schools, we would be right back down in Olympia next year,” Sullivan said.
He said sales tax also is off the table because it is too high and “punishes our lowest-income people.”
He added that the business and occupation tax, “punishes our small business, especially those businesses that have a lower margin. It doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work. Are we going to get the solutions this year? No, we are not. We can make our tax system more fair this year by making incremental change … but this is an issue that won’t go away. … It is time we actually stop punishing those who can least afford to pay taxes.”
Hargrove said the B&O tax system needs work.
“To redesign that system there is going to be winners and losers,” he said. “It’s very tricky to do, and this is probably not the year to do it with education.”
SOUND TRANSIT AND CAR TABS
The hike in car tab fees since the Sound Transit 3 measure passed in November was a hot topic.
Sullivan said the ST3 depreciation schedule, “makes absolutely no sense. When you drive a car off the lot the value drops immediately, yet you’re taxed at that higher rate. … It came as a surprise to some of us when the depreciation schedule was released by Sound Transit.”
Sullivan said legislators hope Sound Transit can correct the problem, but if not, there are bills in the House and Senate to fix it.
Hargrove said he would like the Sound Transit board to become an elected body.
Currently, the board is appointed and Hargrove said, “It’s not that they are bad people, but they were not elected to be on the board of Sound Transit. They are elected to mayors and things like that. I would like to see folks able to devote time to running Sound Transit properly so we get better accountability and more efficiency.”
He pointed out Sound Transit began selling bonds based on the car valuation schedule currently in use.
“The problem is if we now try to change car valuation then the bonds are not backed under the premises they were sold,” Hargrove said.
Sullivan added that the “current federal proposal would cut the Sound Transit budget by an additional $2 billion. This is a very complicated matter we’ve got to figure out in a bipartisan way.”
The topic of undocumented immigrants and federal funds being withheld from the state over compliance was discussed.
“One of the things being threatened at the federal level is all federal dollars being withheld if a municipality like Seattle says we are not going to help federal law enforcement with immigration issues,” Fain said. “This is a long litigated issue over years. And you can’t just take an unrelated part of federal money, like Medicaid money or something else, and pull it away just because a local municipality doesn’t want to go along with one thing.”
Fain said often the undocumented people living in the state are, “actually probably paying a larger share in taxes…. There is two sides to this issue and one of them is the business side. We have built an economy on low wage labor and then we’ve left borders wide open. The combination of the two has almost been a tacit consent that people from other countries should come here without proper documentation to work, because we as a society have created that incentive. And we need to end that incentive and we need to end it in a humane way.”
Sullivan said he met families who are legal refugees living in Kent. The families came from east Africa and spent years in a refugee camp.
“(They) are here legally,” Sullivan said. “Yet they fear the fact if one of their kids gets stopped for a speeding ticket or gets targeted for any reason they can be sent back home…. We’ve got to make sure that we are working together, living together and contributing to pay taxes together. I hope that is the type of city and community we are living in.”
Hargrove said, “We can come to a solution in this country,. We’ve got a big problem because we are pretty far down this road. But there is a solution that will work out.”