Democrats have four proposals in play to fix the Washington's Legislature's dilemma on how to find $2.1 billion in 2013-2015 to adequately fix the state's schools. All call for tax increases.
Meanwhile, Republicans plan to wait to see how the Democrat's proposals fare in Olympia early next year before unveiling their plan to deal with the $2.1 billion education funding shortfall without raising taxes.
At a Wednesday meeting in Renton, the chairman of the Legislature's joint education funding task force, businessman Jeff Vincent, told the group's Democrats to sift through their four proposals to come on with one recommendation by Dec. 17. That will likely be the initial framework for how the Legislature tries to deal with a Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state is not meeting its constitutional requirements to fund basic education.
Sen. David Frockt was frustrated by Republicans not putting a budget fix-it plan on the table as a starting point for negotiating a compromise. "We're getting nothing from the other side. There's nothing to gauge (the Democrats' proposals) against. ... They're proposing nothing. So what do we do?" said Frockt, D-Seatte and a task force member.
Republicans will see whether the final Democrat proposal collects enough votes to pass before unveiling their own no-tax-hike proposal, said task force member Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia and the Republicans' chief budget writer in the House. "I don't believe they can get the votes for it," Alexander said.
The House Republicans don't want to budge from their no-tax-increases stance, he said, adding that a Republican proposal now would not fare well against the Democrat majority. "I can count votes," he said.
The current law says that any tax increase, new tax or closure of a tax exemption requires a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and House. Republicans controls more than one-third of the votes in each chamber and have defeated almost every piece of tax legislation since 2010.
Democrats have challenged the two-thirds rule on constitutional grounds before the state Supreme Court with a ruling expected in the near future. A ruling against the two-rhids majority rule would mean that Democrats could pass tax increases with a much-easer-to-achieve simple majority — at least in the House. The Democrats' Senate majority is very shaky with a good chance of party-line crossing.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington and a task force member, said the $2.1 billion shortfall can't be fixed without new taxes. "I don't see how you can do it without new revenue," he said.
Sullivan noted that the Legislature has been legally ordered to fix the basic education budget inadequacies, noting that the Supreme Court could get actively involved. One possibility is the court appointing special masters to shepherd both sides to a solution if budget talks stall, he said.
Complicating the $2.1 billion education budget shortfall in 2013-2015 is a predicted $900 million shortfall in non-education programs. Consequently, the Legislature faces a $3 billion shortfall for 2013-2015. That breaks down to $900 million for non-education work and slightly more than $1 billion for education in fiscal 2014 — plus another slightly more than $1 billion for education in fiscal 2015.
In 2013-2015, the Democrats' proposals would tackle needs in transportation, keeping buildings and their supplies up to snuff to meet the constitutional requirements, reducing class sizes in grades K-3, installing full-day kindergarten, plus some other smaller measures. The near-term measures include ensuring that all school teachers' and administrators' salaries are set at "market level"— essentially saying that salaries cannot be trimmed below the state's averages.
The four proposals from Democrats are:
- Task force member Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and the House Democrats' chief budget writer, proposing a a levy swap. In a levy swap, the state would tax property owners an extra amount equal to accompanying cuts in local education levies. This move would not add extra money for school districts, but it would stabilize the current levy money going to them since poorer districts currently have trouble raising sufficient tax money.
In a Seattle Times op-ed piece, Hunter estimated that a state property tax hike of $1.13 per $1,000 assessed value would raise roughly $1 billion annually — leaving another $1 billion to be tackled by tax hikes or non-edcuation budget cuts.
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