Politics & Government

Education, mental health, among key issues leading into legislative session

Funding for K-12 education dominated discussions Thursday when lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee spoke about the upcoming legislative session to reporters gathered for an Associated Press forum in Olympia.

Lawmakers will convene for the start of the 105-day session Monday.

In the wake of the state Supreme Court’s 2012 decision known as McCleary, lawmakers are looking for ways to fully fund education. Legislators also need to decide how to pay for Initiative 1351, which voters approved in November to reduce student-to-teacher ratios.

Inslee’s proposed 2015-2017 budget adds an extra $1.3 billion toward basic education, focusing on operating costs, expanding all-day kindergarten statewide and reducing class size for grades K-3. His plan also adds money to boost what the state pays for school employee salaries, but does not fully fund I-1351.

While recognizing the difficulty in funding I-1351, Sen. Andy Hill, a Redmond Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said meeting the McCleary requirement is an achievable goal for session.

“We can keep everything in the government running,” he said. “We can meet our statutory requirements to put essentially another billion dollars into K-12 education, and at that point, we can start talking about doing additional things.”

To help fund education, Inslee has proposed a capital gains tax, which taxes large profits of property sales and investments, in addition to a cap-and-trade system that would make major polluters pay for their emissions.

Mental health is another issue expected to dominate the legislative session.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, called mental health a priority for the state, and said the current system of dealing with mental illness needs to be improved.

Courts have ordered the state to not keep people with mental illness waiting in emergency rooms for proper psychiatric treatment.

“This is something that’s a societal issue, not just an individual issue,” he said. “It affects not only individual families, but the entire society, including the cost of the current system, which is extremely expensive when you look at the toll on human life, and also financial implications for public safety.”

Other key issues sure to figure prominently in the upcoming session include transportation and regulation of medical marijuana.