Pot revenue still unsure, but spenders are ready

Staff writerFebruary 12, 2013 

Government is getting ready to take a big cut of Washington’s about-to-be-legal marijuana market, and some state lawmakers are already calling dibs.

Twenty-eight House members signed on to a proposal that would put as much as $182 million a year in marijuana tax revenue toward a major expansion of publicly funded preschool for the needy.

“It’s the best investment we can make,” said Rep. Ruth Kagi, a Lake Forest Park Democrat, citing research showing about 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years of life. “It’s time to really invest, and this is the resource that’s going to be available.”

That would be voter-approved Initiative 502, which legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana under state law and will allow growing and sales once the state issues licenses.

Supporters can even draw a connection between preschool and pot. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill followed poor 1970s preschoolers through life and found they reported less marijuana use than those without the benefit of preschool. It was just one of many health factors that separated the two groups. Other studies have shown other benefits.

“It’s not just in prevention of substance abuse,” said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children’s Alliance advocacy group, which favors the plan to use money from I-502 for early education. “It’s in educational achievement, higher wages in adulthood, less likely to be arrested. There are so many benefits of early learning.”

Kagi calls for dramatically boosting funding for visits by nurses or other workers to the homes of needy parents of young children. And she wants to increase state funding for preschool to the levels paid by federal Head Start, which Gould said are roughly 50 percent higher.

Both of those goals are laid out in House Bill 1723, which aims to consolidate preschool and day care spending into a single early-learning system. Kagi, who chairs the Early Learning and Human Services Committee, introduced the bill with backing from the committee’s top Republican, Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla, and a host of majority Democrats.

It would require new training for unlicensed, government-subsidized workers who watch neighbors, friends or relatives’ children. A program to rate child-care providers would become mandatory for any of them who receive state preschool funds, and their funding would depend on their scores. The rating system would remain voluntary for traditional child-care providers.

Although Kagi acknowledged “people were kind of stunned” by her bid for the marijuana money, she is unlikely to be the last bidder. The state’s two-year budget shortfall combined with court-mandated obligations to public schools could together top $2 billion.

The state Office of Financial Management said I-502 could yield up to $1.1 billion every two years for the state – but that won’t start flowing until about halfway through the budget cycle, and it won’t materialize at all if the regulation and taxing plan is shut down by a federal government that still considers the plant illegal.

Given the federal uncertainty, House budget chairman Ross Hunter said he doesn’t want to count on the marijuana money to solve the current budget problem. While he backs Kagi’s proposal, he would rather find the preschool money in the general fund.

Next year could be a different story.

“It’s found money,” said Hunter, a Medina Democrat. “If money actually appears, if (U.S. Attorney) Jenny Durkan decides she has a sense of humor about people committing federal felonies, I’m happy to count the money in next year’s (budget).”

The Senate’s lead budget writer, Republican Andy Hill of Redmond, could not be reached Monday afternoon.

I-502 locked up much of the revenue in substance-abuse and health care programs, so lawmakers would have to summon supermajorities to free it. Hunter and conservative Democrat Chris Hurst of Enumclaw predict lawmakers will make a change – at least to divert hundreds of millions of dollars I-502 earmarked for a subsidized health insurance program that will turn over many of its recipients in 2014 to programs funded under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“Basic Health goes away next year, so the Legislature is going to have to figure out what it wants to do with the funds,” said Hurst, who chairs the committee overseeing marijuana regulation, and who added he’s “a big proponent of seeing as much of the money going to education as we can.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com @Jordan_Schrader

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