Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Olympia have agreed on one thing this session: Education is one of the top priorities. Whether it’s the $1 billion or so in funding required under the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, skyrocketing public higher education tuition, the GOP proposal to cut the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, or the continuing effort to reform schools, there’s plenty to talk about.
This week, those discussions take center stage, with work sessions and hearings on bills that run the gamut from dramatically reforming state testing requirements in K-12 education to increasing the number of high school students who receive college credit.
But while both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House are focusing on education, there seems to exist little consensus on how to address the problems, which you'll notice—among other differences—in this week's legislative hearings and work sessions.
On Monday, January 28 the Senate budget writing committee is taking a look at one of the largest costs in the state budget: employee compensation. The 3:30 pm hearing will cover an overview of state employee benefits and pensions, review of collective bargaining results, and an outlook on the state’s pension systems.
The House, meanwhile, will hold a hearing on former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed capital budget, which calls for about $500 million for Puget Sound cleanup, among the billions in other projects funded around the state. That hearing begins at 1:30 pm.The bills would allow employers with 50 or fewer employees to pay 75 percent of the minimum wage to a new employee for up to 680 hours – or 17 weeks at full-time status.
At the same time, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee will consider repealing the Family Leave Insurance program, which was created by the legislature in 2007 but never funded. The idea was to piggyback on the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
The state program would have paid up to $250 per week for up to five weeks for employees on family leave, but funding was delayed in the budget crises of 2009 and 2011. It’s currently scheduled to begin in October of 2015, but this bill would repeal the program before it gets off the ground. Meanwhile, Sen. Karen Keiser, a Kent Democrat, has introduced a bill to expand the program and fund it with a payroll tax, but that bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.
The same committee is scheduled to vote on a half dozen controversial workers’ compensation reform bills. One of the bills would allow injured employees to settle the nonmedical portion of their claim. The bills are all aimed at getting injured workers healed up and back on the job more quickly, bringing the cost of industrial insurance premiums down, but opponents at last week’s hearing said the bills would do so by shortchanging injured workers.
On Tuesday, January 29, the House Education Committee has a public hearing on a bill to cut costs in education by dramatically reshaping standardized testing. The bill eliminates the writing portion of state tests, reduces the high school math assessment to just one test rather than two, and removes testing-related graduation requirements. It also prevents the state schools superintendent from developing additional science tests in any subject other than biology. The bill is sponsored by a bipartisan group including Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, chairwoman of the Education Committee. The hearing starts at 1:30 pm.
The House Higher Education Committee is holding a work session on higher education financial aid and student debt at 8 am. The $1 trillion in national student loan debt has gotten plenty of headlines. They’ll hear about the level of debt Washington state students are taking on.
In other committees: The Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee meets at 10 am to hold a public hearing on a bill to allow a plea of “guilty and mentally ill,” which would put mentally ill people convicted of a crime under supervision of the Department of Corrections. And the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee is meeting at 1:30 pm to discuss implementation of Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana.
On Wednesday, January 30, the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee will consider a bill to allow employers to pay a “training wage” to new employees. That hearing starts at 8 am and a companion bill will be heard in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee at 1:30 pm. The bills would allow employers with 50 or fewer employees to pay 75 percent of the minimum wage to a new employee for up to 680 hours – or 17 weeks at full-time status. Here’s the House version and here’s the Senate bill.
Getting back to the education theme for the week, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education will hear from the Joint Task Force on Education Funding in a 3:30 pm hearing.
The Senate K-12 committee will discuss a bill to require any student who fails to get a basic rating on third grade standardized tests to be held back—co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Litzow, chairman of the committee. That hearing starts at 1:30 pm.
On Thursday, January 31, the House Healthcare and Wellness Committee will hold a hearing on the Reproductive Parity Act, which requires that any health plan that covers maternity services also covers abortion. This bill has sailed through the House in previous years and Gov. Jay Inslee has already said he supports it. There’s a question of whether it will pass the Republican-controlled Senate, though Litzow, a moderate Republican, is a co-sponsor of the bill and has said he will try to get the votes needed to get it through the Senate this year.
Meanwhile, the House Higher Education Committee will hold a work session on the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, which allows families in Washington to pre-pay for college credits that can be redeemed years later. The committee will hear an overview and “options” for the program recommended by the Legislative Advisory Committee – a committee chaired by Senate majority leader, conservative Sen. Rodney Tom (D-41, Medina) that has recommended the program should end.
On Friday, February 1, the House Education Committee will hear an overview on the Joint Task Force on Education Funding—specifically the “revenue necessary to fund basic education under the McCleary decision," according to the committee agenda.
That final bit might be the biggest difference between the House, where Democrats say new revenue is essential for schools, and the Senate, where the Majority Coalition Caucus has said additional reforms are needed in combination with a realignment in state spending (rather than new revenue).