Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Washington’s Legislature has 35 days to rustle up an extra $1 billion to meet the state Supreme Court’s deadline finish a mandate to fix the state’s schools in Grades K-3.
That timetable looks extremely tight with no sure plan in sight.
With the Democrats in charge of both the Senate and House, it’s their job to come up with legislation to fund public schools by March 9. Right now, Democrats don’t have a plan. Democratic leaders appear inclined to wait until a quarterly state revenue forecast on Feb 15 to find out whether extra state income from a good economy might trim that $1 billion estimate. That's three weeks.
In fact, only Gov. Jay Inslee has a plan so far to raise the $1 billion—and it has the tiniest of margins to pass the Legislature. He proposes a new $20-per-ton tax on carbon emissions starting July 1, 2019. Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbons, D-Burien, have introduced parallel bills to put Inslee’s plan into effect.
Democrats have a 50-48 edge in the House and a 25-24 advantage in the Senate. So a single Democratic legislator from a purplish swing district can sink a carbon tax proposal. This is the first time the party has controlled both chambers since December 2012.
“We’re talking with legislators on an hourly basis on how to (pass) this bill,” Inslee said Tuesday.
Fitzgibbon has introduced carbon tax proposals annually, but they never gathered the 50 votes within the Democratic caucus to risk a full House floor vote.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said more businesses have voiced support for a carbon tax, especially since a nuanced bill can be worked out in the Legislature, while a potential autumn ballot initiative on the subject would be blunter and less sophisticated. “This has gained a lot of steam,” Nelson said.
However, neither the House nor Senate Democrats have counted votes yet within their own caucuses on a carbon tax. Nelson speculated that if a carbon tax goes to floor votes in the House and Senate, a few Republicans will likely vote for a carbon tax.
But on Tuesday, Republican leaders poo-poohed the idea of a few of their members breaking ranks to support a carbon tax to raise the final $1 billion needed to meet the Supreme Court’s requirements. Senate GOP caucus chairwoman Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, and House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, both doubted any Republicans would support a carbon tax. “The first question is whether (the Democratic) caucuses support it,” said Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.
The GOP stance has been that an extra $1 billion does not need to be raised, and the Republican caucuses will be happy to have the Legislature punt on the issue.
Right now, Democrats have no Plan B if a carbon tax fails.
Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, introduced a capital gains tax bill Monday. But Sullivan said her bill’s purpose is to trim some of the property tax hike caused by 2017’s compromise between Republicans and Democrats on McCleary funding.
Meanwhile, Republicans privately grumble that the capital gains tax proposal is a Trojan Horse to spark a legal challenge on whether a capital gains tax is really an unconstitutional income tax or a constitutionally-allowed excise tax. Nelson doubted that the Senate Democrats can scrape up the votes to pass a capital gains tax without Republicans crossing the aisle to support it.