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    Republicans defer as Democrats offer school improvement plans

    As a task force nears the end of a study on how to meet a court mandate for better schools, Democrats put forward four plans to cut state expenses and raise taxes. The GOP says it will release an all-cuts plan to shift money to schools, but much later.
    Rep. Gary Alexander

    Rep. Gary Alexander

    West Seattle High School

    West Seattle High School Joe Wolf

    State Rep. Ross Hunter chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

    State Rep. Ross Hunter chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Washington State Legislature

    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.

    • Frockt and retiring Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, proposing not allowing a beer tax, a hospital tax and a 0.3 percent business and and occupation service surcharge — all due to sunset soon — to expire. Also $125 million worth of tax exemptions would be closed. And another $125 million in rainy day funds would be tapped in fiscal 2014 and another $150 million in fiscal 2015. No rainy day fund raiding would occur after that.

    This proposal also calls for $300 million of education transportation costs to be shifted to the state's transportation budget — forcing the Senate and House's transportation committees to deal with that issue. Plus the proposal calls for $150 million to be trimmed in administrative costs.

    This translates to covering $1.157 billion in 2014 and $1.197 billion in 2015, or $2.354 billion for the upcoming budget biennium. Estimates for subsequent years are roughly the same.

    • Frockt and Brown offering a second similar proposal with a couple of differences. This proposal does not transfer $300 million to the transportation budget.  Meanwhile, it proposes temporarily increasing the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.7 percent — raising $209 million in 2014 and more in subsequent years — until a new tax can be studied and implemented. Frockt speculated that a capital gains tax could be considered as the permanent measure.

    This would translate to covering $1.066 billion in 2014 and $1.139 billion in 2015, or $2.205 billion in the upcoming budget biennium. The amounts would be a bit less in subsequent years.

    • Sullivan proposing a similar plan.The differences would be putting in $300 million in reductions elswhere in the state's budget,, closing $200 million worth of tax exemptions, finding $100 million in savings due to implementing Obamacare, and transferring up to $450 million annually in education transportation obligations to the transportation budget.

    This would translate to covering $2.153 billion in 2013-2015.

    Task force member Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island and a member of the Senate's transportation committee, was concerned about shifting education transportation matters to the transportation budget. This would be an accounting maneuver that would merely force that committee to make cuts or raise extra revenue in transportation matters, she said.

    "I hate to use (the non-education transportation budget) as a straw man and play Russian roulette with it," Rolfes said.

    In the big picture, the House and Senate financial staffs calculated that the Supreme Court's ruling will require an extra $2.1 billion in cuts and new revenue in 2013-2015, $2.8 billion for 2015-2017, and $2.1 billion for 2017-2019. And those numbers assume absolutely no growth between now and 2019 in all of the state non-education programs.

    The 2013-2015 overall state operating budget is predicted to be roughly $33.3 billion with no growth in non-education programs, compared to $31.2 billion — including $13.65 billion for K-12 edcuation — in 2011-2013.

    Here is a rundown of the state's goals driven by the Supreme Court's McCleary decision:

    • Reducing the Teacher to student ratios in grades K-3, an age in which experts say fundamental learning needs to take place to produce results rippling into the higher grades. Right now the the ratio is 25.23 students per teacher in those grades. The 2011-13 budget calls for reducing that ratio to 24.1-to-1. The McCleary ruling orders that ratio to be reduced to 17 students in grades K-3 by 2017-2018.
    • Poverty-level schools getting priority in that class-size reduction, with "poverty" defined as more than 50 percent of a school's students participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program.
    • Washington's current minimum number of credits to graduate high school will be gradually increase from 20 to 24. Right now, school districts have different numbers of credits to graduate, with the state average being 22. Increased costs will be tied to what extra courses are added.
    • The amount of instruction in grades 7-12 is supposed to reach 1,080 hours a year per student no sooner than 2014-2015. The state Office of Financial Management believes the state average now is roughly 1,000 instructional hours per student per school year.

    John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Thu, Dec 6, 5:20 a.m. Inappropriate

    The Republican plan - to force a stalemate - is not helpful. And let's be clear, that is their plan. They will not accept any of the workable plans from the Democrats and they refuse to put forward a workable plan of their own.

    Also, that levy swap idea stinks. It takes the locally approved taxes and distributes the funds to the state. Local communities choose to tax themselves to raise money to spend on their local schools. They do it every three years and every three years they get the opportunity to say yes or no. For the state to take that money any spend it in communities that did not choose to tax themselves is an extraordinarily bad idea. This will also take away from the communities that chose to tax themselves the opportunity to subject that tax to a vote every three years.


    Posted Sat, Dec 8, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Levy swap" Nice name for theft of local funds by the state.

    The courts should stamp that out for the treason to the will of local voters that it is. Who owns the school buildings? Does the state think it owns the school buildings too?

    The school districts and the people in them own the buildings and their levy and operation funds. Thus,those who came up with the idea of levy swap are intellectually and ethically challenged.

    If the state wants levy equalization, just end all local levies and have a flat state rate in all districts.

    Posted Thu, Dec 6, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

    What is missing from the Democrat Plan? How about some cost savings? How about doing simple things like verifying citizenship status before issuing any form of State License? Mandating E-verify? Verification of citizenship qulaification before granting benefits? Non-emergency Medical care?

    The flow through to the School Funding issue could easily result in a half a Billion Dollar a year savings. If illegal aliens do not have the ability to work in Washington, or recieve benefits, they will move somewhere where they can. Instead of growing an Illegal Alien population at double digits a year, we as a State might be able to gain some control on the budget lines items that currently address their presence.


    Posted Thu, Dec 6, 2 p.m. Inappropriate

    How do you propose that Washington get its annual $1.4 billion apple crop, its $363 million sweet cherry crop, its $189 million pear crop and its numerous other labor intensive agricultural crops harvested without immigrant farm laborers, many who are undocumented and who have children in school during harvest seasons? Some of those students were born in the U.S. and are legal citizens of this country. Others were brought here by their parents at very young ages. The harvests that these workers bring in put reasonably priced food on your table and drive a significant portion of the state's economy. Without them, our agricultural industry would collapse.

    Mr. V

    Posted Fri, Dec 7, 3:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    By recruiting and hiring legal workers. There is no need for illegal immigrants for farmwork.


    Posted Thu, Dec 6, 3:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    I think the whole point of the McCleary decision is that the legislature has not been meeting their constitutional duty for 20 to 30 years.
    The argument that we need to raise taxes to fund education is a false one. The biennial budget is $32B. K-12 funding used to represent 51% of the budget, it currently represents 43%. That 8% difference is approx. $2.5B. That is enough to fully fund K-12 education. The state constitution and the courts have said funding K-12 is the "paramount duty," that must be funded before any other programs. Clearly the state has enough money to do this.
    Any talk of raising taxes should be in the form of raising taxes to pay for other state programs that are need. The legislature, both Democrats and Republicans do not want to do this and they have not wanted to for 30 years. My guess is because they know voters will vote "yes" for education, but not much else.


    Posted Fri, Dec 7, 3:41 a.m. Inappropriate

    I really no longer care about education funding, since the charter schools passed. I figure any education funding will just go to individuals like Michael Milken (Knowlege Universe--largest for-profit K-12 corporation in the world; and yeah the Junk Bond King). I hope no education funding gets passed, and I hope the next Seattle School District levy fails. I have no wish to pay taxes to corporations.


    Posted Fri, Dec 7, 4:36 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Republicans will see whether the final Democrat proposal". The correct adjective is Democratic. Use Democrat as an adjective only if you intent to signal that you disrespect you Democrats. Such disrespect is not worthy of Crosscut.


    Posted Fri, Dec 7, 5:17 a.m. Inappropriate

    Mr. V the crop gets in the same way it always has, manual labor. The same way it did when I was younger and worked in the orchards. Guest worker programs that actually enforce the "return home after the season" would be desired. If you support illegal aliens to pick your fruit, I guess you prefer to pay your higher food costs through Schools, Jails and Social Services along with violations of immigration laws. So what is the actual cost? Legal labor would be far cheaper.

    As far as respecting Democrats goes, this publication bends over backwards to give Democrats and Democratic Administrations far more respect than their performance deserves. We are about to experience four years of a "secret sauce" Inslee Administration, I would appreciate at least a bit of balance for a change.


    Posted Fri, Dec 7, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    The fact is, more than 70 percent of the farm labor force needed to harvest the state's crops are undocumented. There are simply not enough other "manual laborers" willing to do the work. I grew up in "The Fruitbowl of the Nation" and routinely worked in the orchards and warehouses there. And your bigoted comments about paying higher food costs or costs for jails, schools and social programs are simply that.

    Mr. V

    Posted Sat, Dec 8, 1:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    And if the 70 percent was not available for harvest, what would the AG community do? Find an alternative, legal source of labor perhaps? probably. The fact that we have substanitially higher education costs, Costs of incarceration and Social Safety net cost because of the presence of over a Quarter Million Illegal aliens in the State of Washington is not "bigoted", they are simply a facts. I think it goes to the weakness of the arguement for encouraging more illegal immigration to refer to anyone who believes in upholding the law as a bigot. It's far easier to demonize than to discuss rational solutions.


    Posted Sun, Dec 9, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    I think there are better ways for the state to financially support AG, than providing huge social benefits to entice low paid workers. The state could provide $5/hr of health benefits per hour of work. Or $5/hr of college funds per hour of work. Wouldn't giving state benefits to ANYONE who took these jobs draw in more legal residents, college students, and low wage workers?

    I think the best way for the state to fund higher education is to provide matching funds for every documented hour a person works a low paid job in Washington.

    Incentivize work. Do not incentivize having children that the state has to support, which is what the current system is. Dollars based on hours, not dollars based on head count.

    Posted Fri, Dec 7, 11:52 a.m. Inappropriate

    WayneT says what the article should have acknowledged; it's been a conscious choice of our legislature and executive to inadequately fund schools. I would assume this is because of a general acceptance of local levies in some areas (Western Washington in general and King County in particular). I think the shift of funds has gone principally to DSHS. If WayneT is suggesting that DSHS distributions be put to a levy I would agree.


    Posted Mon, Dec 10, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

    Bingo Keith!

    The big increases in the state's budget over the past 20-30 years has been in social services, going from 30% to 37% of the state's budget!

    I'm not saying that we do not need these programs but do you think the majority of voters would vote to raise their taxes to pay for them?


    Posted Thu, Dec 13, 6:45 p.m. Inappropriate

    I think the Legislature should simply ignore the Supreme Court's ruling. It is a blatant usurpation of legislative power. Absent that, then perhaps it's time to follow Wisconsin's lead, break the teacher's union, and cut their wages and benefits. The state's taxpayers should not succumb to blackmail.


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