Weeks 1 & 2: Overview

1/21/17 – The legislative session began Monday, January 9, 2017 and will officially run for 105 days. Given the difficult budgetary choices that must be made this session, it is likely to be extended beyond the April 23rd deadline into one or more 30-day special sessions. With a Democrat in the Governor’s office, the House narrowly controlled by the Democrats, and the Senate controlled by a majority coalition led by Republicans, there are wide gaps between the chambers in terms of how the state raises and spends money. And because this is the year the legislature has to conform to the court’s order in the McCleary case, which is to fund the public schools to a level where they are no longer dependent on local levies, the stakes are—once again— high.

After his re-election, Governor Inslee released his budget for the 2017-2019 biennium in December of 2016. His budget proposes several sources of new revenue: a carbon tax; a capital gains tax on the wealthiest households, and the closing of some tax loopholes. All of these new revenue sources have been proposed in previous sessions; all have been defeated. The House and the Senate will release their budget proposals later in the session. Both Democrats and Republicans in each chamber are generally supportive of higher education, and no one expects major budgetary departures from previous sessions.

Higher Education Committees generally schedule work sessions in these first weeks, with hearings on specific proposals and bills to follow in the next few weeks. These work sessions cover a variety of topics, including college affordability. In the 2015 session, the Legislature, led by the Senate Republicans, passed a tuition reduction plan that has been phased in over the past two years. In each year, the Legislature has “backfilled” or compensated the institutions for revenue lost due to tuition reductions. Going forward, the state must decide how much tuition can increase per year, and under whose control those decisions should be. Currently, the increase is 2.1%, which is the 14-year average growth rate of the state’s median wage. I attended a work session yesterday that looked at various other indices that might be used, most of which would yield a slightly higher number. Other work sessions have featured budget reports, institutional updates, financial aid overviews, and a report from the taskforce on sexual violence on campus. Those reports are posted on the respective committee websites. [House committee meeting documents and presentations can be found here: https://app.leg.wa.gov/CMD/meeting.aspx?ca=%20HE . Senate committee meeting documents and presentations can be found here: https://app.leg.wa.gov/CMD/meeting.aspx?ca=% 20HIE.]

On Tuesday I will be testifying in the House Higher Ed Committee in favor of a bill that seeks to encourage institutions to rebalance the ratio of tenure track and non tenure track faculty by offering financial support to universities that create new tenure positions. Bill Lyne, WWU faculty and President of the United Faculty of Washington State, designed and drafted HB 1238 and has garnered significant support in the House. Whether or not it makes it through the gauntlet of hearings and votes to eventually become law, Lyne’s bill offers faculty an opportunity to talk to legislators about the value of tenure. The purpose here is not to denigrate our non tenure track colleagues; the purpose is to illustrate how tenure status contributes to academic freedom and the quality of student education.

-Sara Singleton, WWU

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