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Steele gets leadership roles on House Education and Capital Budget committees

Legislator's role could be important for local efforts


Rep. Mike Steele

A legislator who represents the state's 12th Legislative District, including the Grand Coulee Dam area, has been appointed to head or serve on three important committees in the House of Representatives that could have an impact on local funding struggles.

Rep. Mike Steele has been selected to serve as the ranking member on the House Education Committee, his office announced Monday. He's also assistant ranking member on the House Capital Budget Committee, and will serve on the House Appropriations Committee.

The Legislature convenes Jan. 14 to begin a 105-day session in a year when it sets the state's budget for the next two years.

The appointments could be significant because Steele is familiar with the local school district's budgeting challenges under the state's new funding process, which is causing expected shortfalls for Grand Coulee Dam and other districts.

Grand Coulee Dam School District Superintendent Paul Turner has met with Steele more than once on the $800,000 funding shortfall the district expects to encounter, plus other education issues. And Steele got Turner appointed to the Legislative Task Force on School Construction.

"It's great and advantageous for schools in our legislative district to have him on those committees," Turner said. "He's adamant about improving capital funding abilities for rural schools."

Turner said he has been working on a proposal that could include funding for a new gym for the local district, which was not included when the new K-12 Lake Roosevelt Schools complex was built.

For the past few years, the House Education Committee has been in the spotlight as it worked to reform K-12 education funding for the state. With the approval of a new K-12 salary allocation model at the close of the 2018 legislative session, the state came into full compliance with the Washington State Supreme Court's "McCleary" order to fully fund basic education, a news release from Steele's office states.

"I'm excited to tackle this new leadership role on the Education Committee. In 2018, we made sweeping changes to funding for K-12 staff salaries. However, the new funding model - designed to lower school districts' reliance on local property taxes to pay teacher and staff salaries - may need to be re-examined and, if necessary, adjusted," said Steele, R-Chelan. "For some school districts, the dollars are not stretching far enough. We need to dig into the numbers and find out why. In the past few years, we've invested billions of additional funds into education. No school district should be forced to operate at a deficit."

The district is also interested in pursuing other priorities Steele thinks are important for education.

"By expanding career and technical education opportunities, more students could explore an occupation or career path," Steele said. "This is the workforce of the future and we need to equip and prepare them. This benefits students, businesses and our state."

The House Capital Budget Committee oversees the funding of many infrastructure and construction projects around the state.

"These capital budget funds are critical to our communities," Steele said. "In particular, I'd like to examine how we can help alleviate the workforce housing shortage. With an estimated one-percent vacancy rate in Wenatchee, many young professionals - retail salespeople, office workers, and other middle-income professionals - are unable to afford homeownership. These are people we're trying to recruit to our communities, not drive away. By funding infrastructure projects that support workforce housing, we can draw them back," continued Steele.

Housing has also been identified by local major employers as a critical issue in attracting qualified workers to the Grand Coulee Dam area.

The House Appropriations Committee, on which Steele will also serve, considers fiscal matters for the state. It will be considering the operating budget for the 2019-21 biennium, as well as other bills with large budget impacts.

"I'm really happy to get this appointment. In next biennium, we'll be facing significant budget challenges. Fortunately, our healthy state economy has produced large revenue increases. Instead of spending it all, or even asking for more, we need to focus on delivering programs efficiently and cost effectively. That means living within our means - not taking more dollars away from taxpayers," he said.

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