2015 agenda for action

In 1987, News Tribune Publisher Bill Honeysett – who died last Sunday – launched an annual tradition: publishing a civic agenda outlining the editorial board’s chief concerns and priorities for the coming year.

This year’s agenda is dominated by legislative business. The lawmakers of 2015 face an unusually broad array of must-do jobs, ranging from funding education to fixing highways to shutting down the state's multitude of bootleg marijuana stores.

The News Tribune’s Civic Agenda for 2015:

Enact a responsible state budget

State budgets always create winners and losers. This year, the big winner – K-12 education – has already taken the trophy home.

Two years ago, in its landmark McCleary decision, the Washington Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to fully fund the state’s public schools by 2018. The Legislature has never met this constitutional mandate, leaving much of the burden to local school districts and chancy levy elections.

Complying with the court’s mandate will require more than $1 billion a year. That problem should be solved in the soon-to-be-written budget for the 2015-2017 biennium.

We’re concerned that the scramble for McCleary money will prompt a retreat from other critical state priorities, including the social safety net, higher education, early learning, mental health and transportation improvements. These must be protected – especially since the state hasn’t tapped some obvious revenue sources.

One of these is the so-called levy swap. Under the status quo repudiated by the court, local districts collect their own property taxes, often to pay for such basics as buses and textbooks. As the burden of funding schools shifts from the districts to the state, most of that money ought to follow in a revenue-neutral way.

There’s other money on the table. Business tax breaks that no longer serve to create or preserve jobs ought to be phased out. So should illogical tax exemptions, on e-cigarettes and bottled water, for example.

Overriding Initiative 1351, which would expand school staffing at the cost of billions, is an absolute must. Meeting the McCleary mandate without gutting other priorities will be hard enough as it is.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed two major new taxes: a 7 percent capital gains tax on the wealthy and $1 billion a year in carbon emission fees to be extracted from roughly 130 state businesses. Each of the two would trigger a political brawl.

The capital gains tax deserves a fair hearing this year. But it’s likely to take more than one session for lawmakers to get their heads around a cap-and-trade system, much less one that imposes heavy fees on a relative handful of companies. A revenue-neutral levy swap would be a much better bet.

Protect college opportunity and early learning

Washington’s K-12 system will fare well in 2015 – McCleary and powerful lobbies guarantee it. But the state’s public colleges and early learning programs face a serious threat from Initiative 1351, which would balloon public school payrolls and cost billions of dollars the state doesn’t have.

Unless lawmakers override I-1351, which barely passed in November, those billions will come out of discretionary items like higher ed and school readiness. It would be insane to sacrifice programs that prepare young children for kindergarten. It would be equally insane to starve the public universities and two-year schools that high school graduates need to succeed as adults.

Preschool children also need help from their community – especially in Tacoma and Pierce County, where a high percentage grow up in poverty and struggle against the odds. Children from low-income homes frequently start kindergarten with limited math and literacy skills; if they don’t catch up with their peers within a few years, they likely never will.

United Way of Pierce County leads an initiative, the Regional Early Learning Coalition, that assists at-risk children through more than 40 partner agencies, including child-oriented nonprofits, libraries, school districts and health care organizations. This deserves generous volunteer and financial support from the county’s citizens and corporations.

Treat the mentally ill

When the Great Recession hit, the Legislature conducted an inadvertent experiment on the mentally ill.

It cut mental health treatment and closed psychiatric wards, apparently expecting nothing to happen. Lo and behold, it turned out that hospital beds and caregivers actually serve a purpose.

The budget cuts coincided with an epidemic of untreated schizophrenia, paranoia and other severe disorders. Western State Hospital and other institutions no longer had room for many of the sick. Thousands of them wound up in places they didn’t belong: emergency rooms, jails and the streets. Some committed acts of violence they wouldn’t have committed with proper treatment, voluntary or involuntary.

The lack of system capacity led to the appalling practice of “psychiatric boarding,” in which patients were warehoused for days or weeks in ordinary hospitals – sometimes in restraints – getting care from harried non-specialists and often disrupting emergency departments.

We hope this reality check has persuaded lawmakers not to do mental health on the cheap again in 2015. McCleary or no McCleary, these patients need real treatment from real mental health professionals, in specialized psychiatric hospitals as needed, for extended periods as needed.

Every level of government must step up to the challenge. Pierce County – which has more than its share of people with psychiatric disorders – should not be the only major urban area in the state that doesn’t use a mental health tax to address their problems. The County Council shouldn’t be trying to do this on the cheap either.

The federal government, in a lucid moment, has given Washington a temporary waiver from a particularly foolish policy: refusing to help pay for care for patients in hospitals with more than 16 beds. That rule – which has forced cutbacks at Western State – should be chucked for good.

Unplug traffic

Another job for the 2015 Legislature: Widening the economy-stunting bottlenecks in Washington’s transportation system.

Commuters, freight and economic growth are being stalled at a handful of highway traffic chokepoints in the state – on Snoqualmie Pass, for example, and the Interstate 5 corridor between Lakewood and Lacey.

The ugliest of them of all is the unfinished six-mile gap between state Route 167, which abruptly ends at Puyallup, and Interstate 5 and the Port of Tacoma. Because freight-laden trucks from the port can’t move directly through the Kent Valley, they must crowd into the congested northbound lanes of I-5.

The diversion hampers job-creation through the SR 167 corridor; the specter of more congestion threatens the future of the port.

A coalition of lawmakers has proposed finishing SR 167 as part of a larger project that would also speed freight from the Port of Seattle by connecting state Route 509 to I-5.

Skeptics say that the timing is wrong – that the McCleary mandate will make a transportation package impossible this session. But funding education over the long haul will require economic growth; ultimately, the schools themselves need the job-creation an efficient transportation system would foster.

Fix the marijuana mess

At last count, Tacoma had 56 unlicensed and illegal pot shops, also known as medical marijuana dispensaries. The unlicensed shops in King County and Seattle are literally uncountable: There are hundreds, and more open by the month.

This jungle is strangling the licensed, taxed and tightly regulated system voters thought they were getting when they approved legal marijuana in 2012. Operating outside the law, the dispensaries easily undercut the stores that play by the rules.

Some of them aren’t particular about whom they sell to. A 2013 survey by the Seattle School District found that 39 percent of the Seattle students who use marijuana were getting it from “medical” dispensaries.

The Tacoma City Council, after irresponsibly abetting outlaw dispensaries for years, has lately made some encouraging noises about shutting them down. That would be a welcome change; we’ll believe it when we see it.

The Legislature bears ultimate responsibility for doing the weed-whacking. It should start by tightening the loose rules and enforcement that have allowed quacks to sell marijuana authorizations to virtually any drug-seeker who walks through the door.

Welcome veterans

The United States is withdrawing from a 13-year conflict in Afghanistan that overlapped six years of intense combat in Iraq. The burden was borne by the minuscule percentage of Americans who served in the armed forces during the 9/11 era. To paraphrase Churchill, rarely have so many civilians owed so much to so few men and women in uniform.

Many of the nation’s veterans – roughly 9,000 a year – are leaving the military by means of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. An estimated 30 percent of them like it here and plan to stay.

On this page in November, Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza of JBLM wrote, “I am often asked by members of this community, ‘What can we do to help our soldiers and veterans?’ My response is always the same: ‘Hire them!’”

JBLM’s ancestor, Camp Lewis, was established in 1917 after Pierce County voters purchased the site and donated it to the U.S. government for a military base. Successive waves of Army and Air Force veterans have since settled here and strengthened our communities.

This latest generation also deserves a warm welcome – and yes, jobs.

Keep government accountable

The fight to keep government transparent and accountable is a two-front war.

There’s the usual official tendency to make decisions in secret and resist the release of traditional records. There's also the battle over access to public business conducted and recorded with new digital technologies.

Local officials routinely press the Legislature for more power to deny documents to people they believe abuse the state’s open records policy. Some officials don’t understand the laws on open meetings, which give citizens the right to monitor government deliberations and decisions. Public access to government business should be expanded, not restricted.

A few discussions – about real estate purchases, for example – can be held behind closed doors. But even those should be electronically recorded and accessible to the public once the need for secrecy has passed. Government officials should not automatically close a meeting or deny a record simply because a legal exemption allows them to – openness should be the default setting.

New technology makes it easier to circumvent open government. It’s easy, for example, to conduct public business in secrecy by using personal computers and cell phones. The Legislature should clarify that all official communications by public executives, administrators and policymakers are subject to disclosure, regardless of who owns the device.

But digital technology also makes it easier to be transparent. Instead of traditional paper retrieval and photocopying, officials should be able to search their digital archives quickly and inexpensively, providing citizens with documents through downloads or CDs.

Better yet, governments should maintain citizen-friendly websites that allow easy do-it-yourself searches for all documents the public has a right to see.