Guest commentary: Preserving timber funds for schools
-October 20th, 2016
Uncoupling state timber sales revenue from public school construction funding doesn’t make sense. It’ss akin to killing the goose laying the golden eggs.
That idea came up during this year’s campaign for public lands commissioner. Democrat Hilary Franz, a Seattle environmental attorney, and Republican Steve McLaughlin, a retired Navy commander, are the finalists.
Franz said in a published position statement that the state mandate to use revenue from timber sales on public lands to pay for school construction is “environmentally harmful” and “archaic.” McLaughlin disagrees.
The current funding arrangement may be old-fashioned, but it works well. One of the key reasons is Washington has strong forest practices and protections written into its laws.
Our state’s founders felt so strongly about adequately funding public education, they established the Common School Trust. It encompasses more than 1.8 million acres, and its purpose is to continue to offset school construction costs with money from log sales and shoreline and agriculture leases.
While other states have squandered their federally allocated lands, Washington has not. In fact, our elected officials have added trust lands since Washington entered the Union in 1889.
Today, proceeds from those trust lands not only help pay for public K-12 school construction, but fund our state colleges and universities, counties, and prisons.
“Compromising the health of our forests by not maintaining harvests on state trust lands would mean dramatic reductions in jobs and timber for Washington mills and rural communities,” Jim McEntire, former Clallam County Commission, recently wrote in the Seattle Times.
Washington is the nation’s second largest timber producer, supporting 106,000 jobs and generating $5.2 billion in wages in rural communities.
In 1984, the Washington State Supreme Court reasserted that the Department of Natural Resources is obligated to follow the common law duties of a trustee, which includes generating revenue, managing trust assets prudently, and “acting with undivided loyalty to the trust beneficiaries.”
As a practical matter, it’s improbable the Legislature would replace timber receipts with a higher business-and-occupation tax on our state’s businesses or even enact a first-ever state capital gains tax, as Franz suggested.
The governor and lawmakers will continue to be hard pressed to scrape together the funding just to operate our K-12 education system as directed by the Washington State Supreme Court under the McCleary decision.
The Court continues to fine the legislature $100,000 a day because it hasn’t come up with the money it feels our schools need to comply with the law. On Oct. 10, justices announced they will give the 2017 Legislature an opportunity to address the issue before considering additional sanctions.
Making up $313 million in revenue coming from timber sales and aquatic leases is just not in the cards.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He is retired as president of the Association of Washington Business and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.