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Monday, December 9, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Focus on issues in this session

The Washington Legislature convened its 2019 session last week. Lawmakers will consider hundreds of bills over the next 105 days. We hope our region’s delegation helps its peers focus on the important issues to Washington. And take the governor’s recommendations with a grain of salt.

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Jay Inslee sounded less like a governor and more like a candidate running for president, which, of course, he is. He presented a progressive wish list for a national Democratic primary electorate that skews left. Health care reform, gun restrictions, cracking down on corporations, and free or reduced-price college all came up.

And so did climate change, which is the issue analysts figure Inslee will use to differentiate himself from other Democratic presidential hopefuls. The effects of a warming planet are indeed crucial, but Washington already is one of the cleanest, greenest states in the nation. This is not the biggest issue confronting the state this year, and lawmakers should not get distracted by Inslee’s national ambitions.

Other issues demand attention, starting with transportation infrastructure and how to pay for it. While environmentalists push new carbon taxes, they forget that one of the most efficient taxes on carbon is already on the books: the gas tax. It might need a bump to reflect inflation, but whatever money it generates must go to addressing the state’s dire backlog of projects to fix crumbling bridges and build new roads. The Legislature also should consider a vehicle mileage tax to ensure owners of hybrids and electric cars pay a fair share, and a tax on studded tires to offset the millions in damage they cause.

Democrats control both legislative chambers and might be tempted to raise other taxes. They should resist that urge. The state has seen a substantial increase in tax revenue in recent years, more than enough to fund not just core government services but also secondary responsibilities.

Education is one of those primary responsibilities, and for the first time in many years, the state is on pretty good footing when it comes to education funding after the state Supreme Court forced lawmakers to act.

What schools lack now is oversight. If the Legislature tackles anything with education, it should be reforms aimed at promoting learning innovation and accountability. For example, Washington needs stronger graduation requirements and curriculum paths that treat vocation-ready as equal to college-ready. And charter schools need parity in transportation and facilities funding.

Mental and behavioral health services have replaced education as the top issue. The governor and legislative leaders are correct that Washington must do better for residents who need help. The lack of adequate treatment for substance use disorders and mental health is one of the chief drivers of the homelessness crisis. Solutions should be local, too, controlled by county health programs funded by Medicaid reimbursements for in-patient care.

Lawmakers should tread the most carefully on open government. Last year they shamefully tried to undermine transparency at the Capitol. Only after The Spokesman-Review and other newspapers rallied opposition did the governor force them to back off. If lawmakers address transparency this year, it should only be to put more sunshine on their own work as well as the advisory committees and state agencies that skirt around in the shadows.

Spokane has a strong position in the state Senate this year as both Majority Leader Andy Billig and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler represent our region. They will therefore have the crucial job of reminding lawmakers that Washington is much more than the Puget Sound region.

For example, it’s past time that leaders acknowledge the economic reality that Seattle’s cost of living far outstrips costs and incomes elsewhere. When the state’s minimum wage jumps to $13.50 next year, it will harm rural economies where that’s a living wage. Washington’s minimum wage needs a cost of living adjustment so that businesses in rural areas can hire more young and low-skilled workers. One minimum wage does not fit all.

In both the 2015 and 2017 long legislative sessions, lawmakers wound up going into overtime because they couldn’t finish their work by the scheduled end of the session. This year, knuckle down, focus on the core issues, and leave the divisive political ones dead in committees.

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