Sen. Rodney Tom: Give college savings program the budget ax
by John Stang
De facto Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, said Thursday that the Guaranteed Education Tuition program — dubbed "GET" — will likely be proposed as a cut by the largely Republican coalition he helped form in December. Tom contends it has put the state $631 million in the hole. The GET program allows families to pay for state university tuitions in segments years in advance of a child actually attending college, with the program — not the child's parents — compensating for increased tuition.
House Speaker Frank Chopp and de facto Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, did not object to Tom targeting the GET program Thursday at an Associated Press forum in Olympia that featured Gov.-elect Jay Inslee and legislative leaders. The House's lead budget writer, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, Sen.Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said they would look into whether or not the GET program should be eliminated. Hunter said that such a cut would be difficult.
The Legislature faces a potential $2.5 to $3 billion revenue shortfall during 2013-2015, which includes the additional funding needed to adequately pay for K-12 education, as ordered by a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling. (Republicans put that number at $924 million, while Democrats say it's likely to be more like $1.4 billion.) Between 2011 and 2013 the state will have spent $13.65 billion for K-12 education.
Democrats want to tack on more money to teachers' and administrators' salaries than the Republicans do, Plus they want to allocate more funds than Republicans to the addition of more clals hours and high schools credits. The Republicans' stance is that the Democrats want to spend more money than the Supreme Court desires. Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn supports the Democrats' position, while believing the amount of needed money is even higher.
"I have a number in my head [to fund K-12 education], but I can't tell you if I have the money in my pocket," Inslee said Thursday. Inslee indicated that his target for extra education money is about $1 billion.
Inslee, Republicans and both Democrats in the Republican coalition (Tom and fellow maverick Sen.Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch) all contend that the overall and education shortfalls can be filled without raising taxes. Tom's targeting of the GET program Thursday was the first specific proposed cut to be unveiled beyond some general talk of zeroing in on health and human services.
House and Senate Republicans want to fully fund K-12 education before tackling the rest of the state's operations budget. Murray and Chopp said education is their caucuses' top priority, but stopped short of the Republican stance of tackling education funding solo and then budgeting for everything else. "Education is the top priority, but not the only one," Chopp said.
Despite the GOP coalition's stance against new taxes, Tom and outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire pinned some hope for tax revenues on Congress repealing parts of a 1998 federal law that prohibits states from collecting sales taxes from online businesses. Tom said such a congressional move could bring $500 million in extra revenue to Washington in 2013-2015, while Gregoire put the same number at $384 million.
Democrats have already floated some trial balloons on potential new taxes that might be considered, including taxes on corporate carbon emissions, capital gains, wholesale fuel sales, gum, candy and soda. A 5 percent capital gains tax on more than the first $10,000 in earning could raise $650 million to $1.4 billion. Expiring taxes that could be renewed include a beer tax, a hospital beds tax and a 0.3 percent business and occupation services surcharge — measures that could raise $650 million to $912 million a year.
Meanwhile, the legislative leaders said educational reforms should be addressed independently of the funding issues. "Education is about more than just dollars. It's about reform," Tom said.
Dorn said one reform in the pipeline is expanding the criteria by which teachers' and students' progress are measured. A more efficient way of scheduling teachers' training days will also be explored.