OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Gov. Jay Inslee told a joint session of the Legislature Wednesday that lawmakers must fulfill their top priority of fully paying for the state’s basic education system this year.
Inslee said that while lawmakers must address several other issues before them, such as the mental health system, homelessness and higher education, “none of these issues is more important than fully funding the K-12 education our kids deserve.”
“At a time when Washington’s towns and cities were just specks on a map, our state’s founders chose education as our paramount duty. Not roads or railroads. Not jails,” he said. “They chose schools. So should we.”
Lawmakers, who began their 105-day legislative session on Monday, are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system. Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.
Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal released last month, the state pays its part of that salary obligation.
The proposal seeks more than $5 billion in new revenue, with most of it — about $3.9 billion — dedicated to education-related costs. About $1 billion of that education funding would come from a proposed carbon tax that would charge the state’s emitters $25 per metric ton starting in 2018.
In his speech, Inslee said that it’s a tax on carbon pollution “that harms our kids and imperils the planet.”
Before meeting for the joint session, the Republican-led Senate on Wednesday approved a rule change that would make it harder for that chamber to take action on new taxes, similar to a move they made two years ago. The new rule — broader than the 2015 one — requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate before any tax bill can advance to the chamber floor for a final vote. Whether the rule is constitutional will be determined by newly sworn in Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, the presiding officer of the chamber. His predecessor, former Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, determined that the 2015 rule change — which just addressed new taxes — was unconstitutional.
Republicans in the Senate are set to release their budget proposal — which would include the education solution — in the coming weeks, followed by Democrats in the House.
“Certainly we’re not going to be as reliant on taxes as this governor, I guarantee it,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said in a news conference after the governor’s speech.
The court has said that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018 to fully fund education, but that the details of how to do that — as well as how lawmakers will pay for it — must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.
“I recognize the Legislature has some hard lifting to do,” Inslee said. “Just as we set high expectations for our students, we should set high expectations for ourselves. And know that we are capable of meeting them.”
Before his speech, Inslee was sworn in to his second term. Statewide officials were also sworn in, including five who were elected in November to open seats, including Habib, the state’s first blind lieutenant governor.
Inslee also addressed the national political landscape in his speech, saying that “No matter what happens in that Washington, here in this Washington, we will not forget who we are.”
He said that the state will fight to protect the 750,000 people who currently have insurance in the state under the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, and that the state will “not turn our back on the progress we have made.”
“Our commitment to equal rights and human dignity will not be diminished,” he said.
Singer Judy Collins sang the national anthem to open the inaugural ceremony and “America the Beautiful” to close it. The inaugural activities end Wednesday night with an inaugural ball at the Capitol.