Education funding battle looms over start of 2017 legislative session

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- State lawmakers officially opened the 2017 legislative session with promises of being able to work together to reach agreement on education, which is the dominant issue this year. But there is little agreement on whether new taxes are needed.

That is the fundamental difference between Democrats who control the House and favor new taxes, and Republicans who control the Senate and oppose new taxes. It is leading to plenty of speculation that this is going to take the regular session and several overtime sessions to get this done.

Beneath the surface of all of the pomp is the reality that this is going to be one of the toughest sessions most of these lawmakers have ever faced. It is all because of the state supreme court's order that the legislature fully fund basic education.

"To believe there's one quick fix for this, there's not," said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-minority leader. "So I understand now why for 50 years previous legislatures didn't deal with this."

The governor appointed an education funding task force of members from both parties and both houses In hopes they'd come up with a recommendation for the full legislature. Democrats say they did their part, but the Republicans did not.

"Not having a plan from the other side is really a set-back," said task force member Rep. Kristine Lytton (D-Anacortes).

But Republicans say they didn't want to come up with a proposal until all members had a say.

The legislature has already put in an extra $2 billion and looking for $2-4 billion more. For Democrats, that means more taxes.

"We believe we will have to have revenue in order to solve this problem, the enormity of it," Lytton said.

Republicans want no talk of taxes -- at least, not yet.

"We're going to start low and if revenue is part of the picture, there's no way on earth we should start there," said Rep. JT Wilcox, (R-Yelm). "That should be the last contingency, not the beginning of the discussion."

Another challenging topic is whether state law should be amended, making it easier to prosecute police officers in deadly force shootings. A special task force recently recommended on a close vote to eliminate the words 'malice' and 'good faith' from the wording in the law regarding when an officer can be taken to court.

But the chairman of the House committee that will hear the bill said the recommendation has a long way to go for acceptance.

"We're going to have to negotiate this," said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Public Safety Committee chair. "We have not reached agreement at all and take a look at how or if we can amend the statute and also if we can provide more funding for law enforcement training."

This is all happening on a day when the state senate is welcoming some new and some familiar faces. Former Republican senator and governor candidate Dino Rossi is back filling the seat vacated by Senator Andy Hill, who died from cancer.

And former senator Cyrus Habib will be sworn in Wednesday at Lt. Governor, the first blind person to hold such a position.

Also on Wednesday is the governor's State of the State address at noon and then the Governor's Inaugural Ball at 7 p.m., which they're setting up for now outside in tents knowing they will have to deal with cold and snow.

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