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New Senate coalition, Democrats pledge governance, not politics
By Kylee Zabel
Special to The Reporter
Could this be “the year of the Grand Bargain in Olympia?” Democrat Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle believes so after Washington House of Representative and Senate leadership members met Thursday, Jan. 10, at the Associated Press briefing to discuss their priorities for this coming legislative session. All agreed to make funding education the number one priority for both houses.
With the recent formation of the Senate coalition this past December, questions were raised concerning the Senate's ability to work in a bipartisan way. Murray, the Senate Majority Leader until Monday, when a coalition of Republicans and two Democrats is expected to take control, said the goal of the body was to govern responsibly.
Referencing Alan Rosenthal, Ph.D., of Rutgers University, Murray said “legislative bodies, by nature, need to be at points of contention and those different points need to come together. Legislative bodies that work, compromise.”
Medina Democrat Rodney Tom, who will become the Majority Leader on Monday, said the coalition will work in a sensible way.
However, some contentious issues remain. The coalition has said it will have six Democratic committee chairs and six Republican committee chairs, with three committees planning to be co-chaired by one Democrat and one Republican senator.
Democratic leaders in the Senate want co-chairs for each committee to make the bodies totally bipartisan.
Tom noted that having co-chairs is not a functional way to approach this session and wants to play to the strengths of each Senate member, still allowing for power-sharing.
Murray agreed that there is a great opportunity to take advantage of talent this session.
The issue that seemed to be on everyone's mind Thursday was education.
Enumerating his caucus's priorities, House Minority Leader, Rep. Richard DeBolt (R-Chehalis), said education funding needed needs to have a separate budget formed in a “clear and transparent manner” and decided on before any other funding in Washington state.
“What is more of a priority than funding it first?,” asked DeBolt.
All legislators in attendance agreed that, in order to fully address the constitutional mandate on public education, both revenue improvements and reforms were crucial.
According to Tom, the state allocates 43 percent of its budget to education and, while the Legislature recently has spent more, the results have yet to show improvement.
Murray said the lack of results can be attributed to current tax policies, which have placed Washington in the bottom one-third taxing states.
“When you pay for a bottom-third education system, you get bottom-third results,” said Murray.
Tom said additional funds could come by using internet sales tax, anticipated to produce $500 million this biennium.
Speaker of the House, Rep. Frank Chopp (D-Seattle), suggested that focus must always be on the student.
“We need to look beyond just the classroom and teacher,” he said.
He cited the Apple Health program as an example, which he said serves about 750,000 children in Washington.
To excel in school, a “student needs to be healthy and ready to learn,” said Chopp.
Murray stated that the achievement gap is directly related to poverty in the state.
In order to effectively close the gap, the state must help “grow the middle class by helping those who are not in it,” Murray stressed.
But Debolt argued that, “if we're going to look at the education gap, we can't just use platitudes and placations about politics.”
If the legislature wanted to address poverty in its relation to public education, it shouldn't place people in more programs, but rather find them a job, he said.
“The achievement gap is about putting people back to work in areas with high and persistent unemployment, said DeBolt. “If we think we're going to program our way out of it by using big government tactics, we're in serious trouble.”
While all-day kindergarten sparked discussion last session, Tom urged that, in order to address the gap, legislators need to look at drop-out rates and the bottom 40 percent of students in Washington.
“Some students start behind and can never catch up” he said.
Murray and his colleagues are excited for this session and are hopeful that compromise can be reached on education funding issues and other priorities.
“This could be the year…we look like Olympia, not D.C.,” said Murray.
Kylee Zabel is a member of the WNPA Olympia News Bureau