The duel over how to fund Washington education improvements will be fought between Democrats wanting to boost tax revenues and Republicans eyeing the trimming of some social programs.
That's the bottom line that emerged Monday as a bipartisan task force recommended 6-2 to take a Democrat-conceived approach to the legislature — with both of its attending Republican members dissenting.
The job of the task force — four Democratic legislators, four Republican legislators and three people appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire — is to figure out how the state can comply with a Washington Supreme Court ruling that the legislature needs to spend more to meet its constitutional obligation to fund education. Two huge issues split Republicans and Democrats — taxes and how much extra money is actually required.
Democrats put forward a long list of options for raising extra education money. In broad strokes, the Democratic proposal calls for:
- Tapping the state's rainy day fund for $250 million to $300 million.
- Trimming up to $300 million from the overall 2013-2015 budget.
- Stopping an annual $650 million to $800 million worth of sunsetting taxes from expiring. The expiring taxes include a beer tax, a hospital tax and a 0.3 percent business and occupation service surcharge. However, a retained hospital tax might also be considered for a proposed expansion in the state's Medicaid program.
- Eliminating up to $250 million in annual tax exemptions.
- Instituting a capital gains tax on more than the first $10,000 in earning, which is projected to raise $650 million to $1.4 billion a year.
- The Democrats also repeated an earlier proposal to have the transportation fund pay for $143 million to $930 million a year from the state's transportation fund — a proposal criticized earlier for forcing the Senate and House transportation committees to scrounge for the extra money instead.
- Potential revisions on state property tax levies — including a levy swap with local school districts — which could raise raise anywhere between a handful of cash and $2.6 billion.
House Majority Leader and task force member Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the recent alliance of the Senate's 23 Republicans and two maverick Democrats gives the no-new-taxes forces a slight majority in the Senate. Consequently, he said, the task force should put several options on the table as an opening negotiating move to find extra money.
Despite Democrats pushing him for details, Alexander would not mention specific cuts during the meeting "I have a plan [for funding education] to ensure we protect the most vulnerable of the population," he said.
During a break in Monday's meeting, Alexander said the Republicans' lowest budget priorities — those they'd most-likely target for cuts in the upcoming session — include natural resources, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Basic Health, Disability Lifeline and housing programs. Alexander criticized the Democratic proposal as a laundry list of ideas with no actual funding recommendation. Passing most or all of that list, he said, could lead to more increased taxes than are required to fund education improvements.
For their part, Democrats criticized the Republican proposal as not addressing the funding shortfall at all. Task force member Sen.David Frockt, D-Seattle, described Alexander's stance as "I have a secret plan."
"I didn't see a [Republican] proposal [that outlined] where the cuts would happen," Sullivan said. "The caucus not here today is the caucus that has already ruled out any new revenue proposals." Sullivan was referring to the Monday absence of Senate Republican task force members, Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island and new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn.
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