I had a chance to sit down with rookie Seattle Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) a couple of days ago and get his assessment of his first session in Olympia. (Carlyle, whom the Stranger endorsed, defeated latte tax promoter John Burbank in 2008).
Carlyle, an youthful 43-year-old with gray hair and a somewhat hyperactive manner, told me this year's legislative session had "an unbelievable intensity to it" thanks to the $8 billion state budget deficit. "We took the federal stimulus money and backfilled the budget, but that’s onetime money," Carlyle says. "There is just a cold, hard reality that we don’t have enough money to pay for everything. In two years, if the economy doesn’t pick up it’s going to be a big problem."
Nonetheless, Carlyle said, he was proud of several accomplishments, including a new $20 fee on real estate transactions that will raise $26 million a year for programs that combat homelessness; a $1 million appropriation for energy efficiency at McClure Middle School on top of Queen Anne, where he lives ("Hey, I'm not above a little good, old-fashioned pork"); increasing the number of children who are eligible for foster care; and passing the controversial education reform bill, supported by House Republicans and opposed by the Washington Education Association, that defines the "core 24" credits Washington State public high-school students must get to graduate as the foundation of "basic education," the state's "paramount priority" under Washington's constitution.
"The state constitution says education is the paramount responsibility of the state. But there’s no definition of basic education, so the legislature can do this shuck and jive move about how education gets funded," Carlyle said. "This bill formally defines basic education." When I noted that the Washington Education Association considered the new standards an "unfunded mandate," Carlyle said, "That's not a good argument." Although he agrees that Washington State schools are underfunded, "probably by about $2 to $3 billion" a year, Carlyle argues that the state won't be able to convince voters to increase education funding until it has concrete standards. "The public is not going to take a $2 to $3 billion increase in taxes without some sense of outcomes." Asked when the state might be able to come in and backfill that shortfall in education funding, Carlyle said, it could be several years. "Over the next four to five years, as economic growth happens, we need to begin to migrate toward a reemphasis on education," he said.
Carlyle also defended another controversial vote, this one opposing an expansion of the state's unemployment insurance program (which ultimately failed). He said he opposed expending unemployment benefits because the proposal didn't include an exemption for small businesses, which provide 90 percent of jobs in his district. "I ran the numbers, I called around, and I looked at the impact on small businesses and I found it was very substantial--thousands of dollars a year," Carlyle said. "To slap down a small business as if they’re laying off someone because they’re just in a bad mood, when they’re, in fact, going under—for $8 a week more [for laid-off workers]—is just not acceptable."
When Carlyle and I talked, it was just one day after Gov. Christine Gregoire held a ceremony to sign legislation approving the deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Carlyle, it turns out, turned out to support the deep-bore tunnel despite an amendment putting Seattle property owners on the hook for any cost overruns. Carlyle said that according to legal experts he's talked to, " it’s a very open legal question if [the amendment is] enforceable." He added: "The actual amendment is very poorly written. You could argue, for example, that the people of Gig Harbor should have to pay for overruns because they would benefit by increased international traffic to the Port. ... We will not be hung out to dry," he predicted.
I then asked Carlyle a question I thought was way down the rabbit hole—what did he think of the city's decision to delay a planned bike lane on Nickerson Ave. NW, purportedly because of concerns about the traffic impact of the viaduct replacement? To my surprise, Carlyle said he had been the architect of that decision. "I asked the city to put a hold on the bike lane on Nickerson," Carlyle said. "To do that bike path now, before they did an analysis of the impact on traffic from Nickerson to Alaskan Way—at the same time as they’re asking the public and trucks to use Nickerson as an arterial—makes no sense." In a letter to Carlyle and Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36), Mayor Greg Nickels committed to provide for "the efficient movement of traffic" along Nickerson—effectively scuttling the bike lane unless the city can ensure it won't slow down car and truck traffic along that arterial.
Carlyle also defended his vote to increase tuition at state universities, on the grounds that failing to increase tuition would have resulted in "massive cuts to higher education." Carlyle said he favors a "high tuition, high aid approach" to funding higher education—higher tuition for students who can afford it, but more grants for students who can't, along the lines of Obama's Pell Grant increases.
Asked about his disappointments during the session, Carlyle mentioned three: a failure to fix Metro's suburb-centric funding formula (which provides just 20 percent of new bus service to Seattle), the death of the environmental community's agenda (which, in Carlyle's word, got "crushed") and the general resistance to change in Olympia. "The addiction of Olympia to bureaucracy and the resistance to any kind of systems change is mind-boggling," Carlyle says. "What we need in Washington State is a Nixon-goes-to-China approach to government. ... We don’t have a sense of courageous honesty. That’s where I get frustrated."