The following newsletter was sent to subscribers to Sen. Padden’s Report From Olympia, Nov. 27, 2017. To subscribe to Sen. Padden’s newsletters, click here.
Dear friends and neighbors,
Six weeks from now, we will begin a legislative session in which Democrats have control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion. This will be the first time in five years that a single party has control of the statehouse, the result of a Nov. 7 election that gave Democrats a narrow one-vote majority in the Senate. We can only imagine the fights ahead as we resist proposals to raise taxes and expand the power of government.
In the meantime, we are dealing with the mechanics associated with the change in power. All of us are moving to new desks on the Senate floor. Some members are being moved to new offices. Committee assignments are being changed, and all of us who chaired committees are handing over gavels to the other team.
Last week was an appropriate time to reflect on the work we did in the Senate. We can be thankful for the opportunity we had to accomplish important things. We expanded opportunity for the middle class by cutting tuition. We restored a degree of discipline to a budgeting process that had spiraled out of control. We defeated proposals for enormous tax increases that were motivated more by ideology than actual need. On the Senate Law and Justice Committee, our accomplishments were many.
As we make this orderly transition, we can be cheered by a Supreme Court ruling that, in a backhanded way, recognizes the work we have done for the public schools. At the same time, a forecast of state tax collections shows the state is in fine financial condition. We have left the state in good shape. I’ll tell you about it in this week’s newsletter.
Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!
Sen. Mike Padden
School shooting victim to be memorialized with highway designation
In my last newsletter, I mentioned an effort to rename a segment of Highway 27 for Sam Strahan, the 15-year-old victim of September’s shooting at Freeman High School, backed by the Spokane Valley City Council and thousands of individuals. Now the state Transportation Commission has voted unanimously to adopt the new designation. The Sam Strahan Memorial Highway will run from the Freeman area to Spokane Valley. Strahan interceded as a classmate drew loaded weapons in a crowded school hallway. The new highway designation pays tribute to his heroism and sacrifice. You can read about it here.
New office on Mullan Road opens Dec. 4
Our district office will be closed Monday and Tuesday, and will open Wednesday at our current location at the old Spokane Valley City Hall on East Sprague. But we will be closed again Thursday and Friday as remodeling of our old office space prompts a move to new offices in the Apex Building on Mullan Road. We will be open for business at our new location Monday, Dec. 4. Our new address will be 408 N. Mullan Road, Suite 106, Spokane Valley, WA, 99206. Our phone number will be unchanged, (509) 921-2460.
Judge rules Seattle income tax is illegal
Just before the Thanksgiving break, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the Seattle City Council’s effort to impose an income tax is illegal. This was the first skirmish in a legal battle that likely will go to the Supreme Court, and this initial ruling was of great importance. Advocates of an income tax are hoping the Supreme Court will overturn its 1933 ruling that a graduated income tax violates the state constitution. This might allow the Legislature to impose an income tax without a vote of the people on a constitutional amendment. But Judge John Ruhl identified two, more immediate legal hurdles that stand in the city’s way.
The first is that the city can’t impose a tax unless the Legislature gives it authority to do so — and it has never given permission for an income tax. The second is that the Legislature passed a law in 1984 that specifically bars cities from imposing taxes on net income. That also blocks an income tax.
The city has tried claiming its tax is something else – an “excise tax” on the privilege of living in Seattle, It also maintains its tax is imposed on gross income, rather than net. But Ruhl said the reasoning is a stretch. Seattle’s income tax is based on federal taxes, and the calculations used on federal tax forms apply income taxes to net income. Just as important, the judge said, if a tax functions as an income tax, it’s an income tax, no matter what people call it. Ruhl said it wasn’t necessary to reconsider the 1933 ruling — the first two issues are showstoppers.
Given the way the state Supreme Court has attempted to dictate policy to the Legislature, we might expect it to look for a way to overturn its 1933 ruling. But Ruhl‘s well-reasoned opinion demonstrates that any court looking to open the door to a statewide income tax will have to address major legal problems before it get to that point. If the case gets to the Supreme Court, and the court bases its ruling on law rather than politics, the city faces long odds indeed.
New committee assignments for 2018
The change in Senate control is forcing a major reshuffling of committee assignments. As a member of the minority party, I will no longer be chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, but rather the ranking Republican member. I also will serve on the Senate K-12 and Early Education Committee.
These assignments will allow continued attention on public safety issues, particularly property crime, an important issue for our area. Impaired driving will remain a top issue. The 4th Legislative District also will be represented on both legislative committees that oversee public schools – Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, sits on the House Education Committee. Next year we can expect debate on proposals to improve the quality of public education. Another concern will be protecting daycare facilities operated by private entities and religious organizations from excessive regulation.
Booming tax revenue underscores case for tax relief
For years our colleagues on the other side of the aisle have argued that the state’s tax system doesn’t generate enough money to meet the state’s needs. The facts tell us otherwise. A state revenue forecast, released Monday, has raised estimates of state tax collections by $500 million. This is the second sunny forecast we have received since the budget was passed in June. All told, we will have $1 billion more than we expected at the beginning of summer.
And that’s not all. Our budget reserves are at an all-time high. We will have $2.8 billion in reserve by the time the current budget period ends on June 30, 2019.
Going into this next session, our colleagues already are talking about the tax increases they would like to impose. We’ll find out more when Gov. Jay Inslee makes a formal proposal next month. Yet the new forecast not only shows tax collections are adequate – it also makes a strong case for tax relief, and for taking less of the people’s money in the first place.
A backhanded recognition from the Supreme Court
Many of us have been disturbed by the way the state Supreme Court handled the McCleary case — the 2012 ruling that held the state needed to pay for basic education. With no regard for the separation of powers outlined in the state constitution, the court “retained jurisdiction” over the case. Then the court spent five years complaining about the Legislature’s failure to decide everything at once, as if it had the right to micromanage a co-equal branch of government. At one point it even declared the Legislature in contempt of court — inappropriate in a legal sense, but not a bad summary of attitudes around the statehouse.
So the backhanded recognition the court offered two weeks ago is probably as close as we are going to get to a thank-you. In its latest McCleary ruling, the court declared that its demands will be satisfied by the work the Legislature has done over the last five years. It continues to quibble about the timing of pay raises for teachers and administrators, but this is a relatively minor point that has to do with the mechanics of the budget-writing process. A “satisfactory” from the court is the equivalent of a gold star from the teacher.
The McCleary ruling reflected a central fallacy — that spending on schools determines their quality. Yet we had to admit the court was right about one thing — support for education had slipped during 30 years of largely Democratic control of the Legislature. Whatever our attitudes about the court’s action, fixing this problem was the right thing to do. The fact that the Legislature stepped up to the challenge is one of the biggest accomplishments of the last five years.
Our colleagues saw McCleary as an argument for massive tax increases, but we showed we could do the job by prioritizing our spending and putting the public schools first. We devised a new school-financing system that ends reliance on local levies and more fairly apportions resources statewide. Some elements of this new system are troubling, and I withheld my vote this year. But what is most important is the bottom line. We have restored public education to its proper position. K-12’s share of the state budget has increased to 50.3 percent, the first time it has garnered more than half the budget since John Spellman was governor in 1983.
One last rap of the gavel as chair
We held a hearing of the Senate Law and Justice Committee in Olympia Nov. 14 and heard about the progress of legislation we passed last session. Our bill making the 4th DUI a felony already is getting results. The State Patrol, responsible for about half the impaired-driving arrests in this state, reports that 46 drivers have been charged with felonies since the law took effect July 23. Longer sentences mean irresponsible drivers will have less opportunity to wreak havoc — and we must hope prison time will help drive the message home.
Then it was my turn, during this final hearing as chair, to offer my appreciation to the committee staff who have worked so hard these last five years. The Law and Justice Committee has been one of the busiest in the Legislature, dealing with matters of law, the judiciary and law enforcement. We held government accountable with our investigations of the Department of Corrections and Sound Transit, highlighting failures others would have preferred to ignore. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who has served as ranking Democrat on the committee, now takes the gavel. We have done our best to work with the other team, and I remain confident that will continue now that our positions are reversed.
If you have a question or concern about state government, please do not hesitate to contact our office. We are here to serve you!
Phone: (509) 921-2460
Street address: 408 N. Mullan Rd., Suite 106, Spokane Valley, WA 99206
Email address: Mike.Padden@leg.wa.gov