It is often said around Olympia that budgets are moral documents — that they show our true values. In a split Legislature, however, where Democrats control the House of Representatives and Republicans control the Senate, the priorities that were advocated for in the budget were a mixed bag. Democrats committed to fully funding schools and protecting the safety net. Republicans committed to a statewide property tax. In a way, both parties got what they were after — a Democratic budget with Republican funding.
While the focus this year has been primarily on education and how to pay for it, both the budget and the education bill have enormous impacts on people here on Vashon and throughout the state.
I voted for the budget because it reflects the values we hold here in the 34th Legislative District — those of good government and protecting the vulnerable. Unfortunately, I had to vote against the school policy and funding bill since it relies on the Republican property tax that hits communities like ours especially hard.
Here are some highlights from the budget:
1. There is additional funding for a number of essential programs that help struggling families, including Working Connections Childcare (which helps low-income parents have affordable care for their children) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
2. There is critical additional funding for mental health and homelessness services.
3. There is more funding for early childhood education and funding for a new department that will better serve foster kids and other vulnerable children and families in our state.
We also passed the nation’s strongest Paid Family and Medical Leave law — a huge win for new parents and those caring for elderly family members — and a bill to address high-stakes testing for high school seniors that ensures thousands of hard-working students graduate.
Democratic negotiators were also able to beat back many damaging proposals put forward by Republicans, including devastating cuts to essential services, programs that help homeless youth, veterans and the elderly and a significant cut to family planning.
Voting against the education bill was tough, as I am in strong support of the vast majority of the policy included in it, as well as the $7.3 billion of new revenue that will go into Washington schools over the next four years. But the reliance primarily on property taxes to fund this historic bill was not something I could vote for.
Numerous progressive revenue options proposed by Democrats, including a capital gains tax on the sale of high-value stocks and bonds and a progressive real estate excise tax, were flatly refused by Republicans. We managed to close several tax loopholes, including on bottled water, big oil and the out-of-state internet sales tax. But in a state that has the most unfair tax system in the nation, these steps forward were simply not enough.
Despite my “no” vote, the education bill did pass. Here are some other key things to know:
1. Our district will not receive less funding. Vashon Island School District will get an estimated 33 percent increase in state funding over the 2016-17 school year by full phase-in of the bill in 2021.
2. High cost-of-living districts, like Vashon, will receive “regionalized” pay. That means base salaries for school staff are allocated at a higher rate.
3. Local levies are still allowed for enhancements to basic education, and changes to levies do not take effect until 2019.
4. More money will go into our schools, but we will see an increase in property taxes. I encourage you to go to the Department of Revenue website as there are a number of property tax reductions and exemptions you may qualify for (dor.wa.gov).
There is undoubtedly a great amount of good that will come from the work done these past months, and I am proud of that. But like many of you, I am frustrated Republicans have used stall tactics to bring us to the brink of government shutdown not just this year, but every budget cycle since they took over the Senate. They continue to obstruct by blocking passage of the critical capital budget over their unwillingness to compromise on a water rights issue, and the Legislature remains in session.
Despite the gridlock and tidal wave of proposed Republican cuts, however, Democrats insisted we fund education and not balance the budget on the backs of our state’s most vulnerable. Is the budget funded in the way I would have wanted? Absolutely not. But we live to fight another day — and that is exactly what I intend to do.
— Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) represents the 34th Legislative District, which includes Vashon, West Seattle and parts of Burien.