The trees tell us time is running short in the 2017 regular session
Budgets are being negotiated, deadlines are zooming by, bills passed by lawmakers are trickling in to the governor's office, and the flowering cherry trees between the domed Legislative Building and the House and Senate office buildings have burst open with blooms — all signs that the 105-day session's scheduled end on April 23 is quickly drawing near.
The most tell-tale indicator that time is running out is the Saucer Magnolia tree outside the southeast entrance to the Legislative Building — now in full bloom. This spectacular plant at the Capitol was dubbed the “Sine Die Tree” by Jack Pyle, long-time correspondent for the Tacoma News Tribune, during the 1960s. Pyle noted when the tree blooms, it is nature's way of signaling the time for legislators to finish their business and go home.
Its signal, however, has been repeatedly ignored in recent years, as Republican and Democrat lawmakers extended their negotiations into special sessions, wrestling to reach agreements on budget plans to address the education funding issue under the 2012 state Supreme Court McCleary decision.
The result has been an additional $4.6 billion for K-12 education over the past four years. The remaining question of McCleary this year is how to end our overreliance of local levies to fund basic education.
The Legislature has until September 2018 to complete the requirements of the high court ruling. It means, however, we must act during THIS session to satisfy the final requirements that meet the state's constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.
Two state operating budget plans to fund K-12 education have emerged and have passed their respective chambers.
The Senate Republican (also known as Majority Coalition Caucus) 2017-19 budget proposal would appropriate $43 billion, an increase of more than $5 billion (13 percent) over the current budget cycle. It would replace levies with a new flat tax assessment as a state portion of the property tax. Some property owners in urban areas, especially those in the greater Seattle area, would likely pay a higher assessment rate than they do now, while some in rural areas with lesser property values would pay a lower rate under the Senate plan.
The House Democrat 2017-19 budget plan would appropriate $45 billion for state operations. Although the state is taking in an additional $3 billion largely due to positive economic activity in the Puget Sound region, the House Democrat budget would rely on as much as $3 billion of additional taxes on business and real estate, a new capital gains tax and a tax on bottled water, to name a few, for a spending increase of more than $6 billion over the current budget cycle.
Both plans would increase K-12 education funding by about $1.3 billion. But as you can see, how they fund these plans and meet the McCleary requirements are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Negotiators from all five corners (House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats and the governor's office) are meeting in an effort to find common ground that could be crafted into a single compromise operating budget agreement — one that would gain a majority of votes in the House and Senate and be accepted with the governor's signature. It must also be a plan that could finally fully address McCleary and put the issue behind us. Republicans and Democrats are committed to that.
Meantime, the session clock is ticking down to the final days. Whether we finish the people's business while the Sine Die Tree is in full bloom — or long after it has dropped its petals — is still anyone's guess.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, represents the 16th Legislative District. He serves as ranking Republican on the House Finance Committee and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.