And now, we can finally and officially, Sine Die.
Clocking in at 195 days, the 2017 legislative session topped all previous records for the longest in duration. The “session” was actually composed of one regular 105 day session, and three 30 day special sessions. Legislators patted themselves on the back for finally answering the Supreme Court’s “landmark” McCleary mandate to fully fund K-12 education. However, this session is equally as memorable for being the year when the legislature failed to pass a capital budget. At the end of the day, the legislature couldn’t overcome an overwhelming focus on securing majority control next year, and in the end, good public policy lost, as did counties.
The Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) brought a very short but heavy list of priorities to the legislature. Unsurprisingly, not all of these requests made it across the line.
1. Replacing the 1% Property Tax Cap
2017 was the third year in a row that WSAC asked the legislature to replace the 1% cap on property tax growth with a new local option cap that would grow with inflation and population growth. We expected that if the legislature was going to take this action it would do so this year given the policy discussion about school levies. Unfortunately, the legislature rejected this proposal despite the fact that they exempted the state property tax levy for public education from the cap. Our effort was supported by eight months of public relations and media work, and though we were successful in garnering positive editorials from newspapers across the state, this was not enough to convince the legislature to act.
Two bills were introduced on this issue: HB 1764 by Representative Lytton and SB 5772 by Senator Pedersen. Both bills received committee hearings, and county, city and fire officials made an incredible showing of support. The only hard opposition was embodied by Initiative 747 sponsor, Tim Eyman. House Democrats included revenue from HB 1764 in their original budget proposal. However, this was insufficient to overcome opposition from Senate Republicans, and the final budget agreement did not include this issue.
2. Indigent Defense
This was the first year in recent history that WSAC has sought additional funding to offset the cost of trial court indigent defense. Counties currently pay 96% of the cost, with the state only contributing $6 million a year. Full funding would equate to $272 per biennium from the state. Despite the fact that Washington provides less state funding than 43 other states, the final budget provided no additional resources to this unfunded mandate.
WSAC also supported the introduction of several bills that would have highlighted the funding issue: HB 2012 by Representative Koster, and HB 2031 by Representative Appleton. However, neither of these measures gained any traction as the fiscal impact would have been significant for the state. In addition, SB 5376 sponsored by Senator Sheldon attempted to address the determination of indigence. The bill, in pertinent part, requires individuals who are indigent, yet still able to contribute, to pay a portion of their defense costs. The bill passed out of the Senate, but failed to pass out of the House.
3. Public Records
In June of 2016, Representatives McBride and Nealey convened a stakeholder group to discuss potential updates to the Public Records Act. The group ultimately included over 40 participants, including representatives from the Coalition for Open Government, the Allied Daily Newspapers, cities, counties, hospital districts, the State Auditor’s Office and the Governor’s office. The stakeholder group met five times as a whole and subcommittees of the group worked on draft legislation in the areas of alternative dispute resolution, cost recovery, agency responsiveness and extraordinary requests. The result of the seven-month stakeholder process was the introduction of HB 1594 and HB 1595. The legislature passed both bills.