The seemingly intractable impasse in current budget negotiations in Olympia boils down to an argument about how to fund education. The Washington State Senate wants to put the education funding issue to a public vote in November.
To comply with a court ruling that it is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to fund basic K-12 education, state legislators need to pump more money into the public school system. But where will the money come from? Do they cut spending (on social programs, as Republicans propose) or raise revenue (by eliminating tax exemptions, as Democrats are wont to do)? Tough call.
Which is apparently why the State Senate wants to punt. (Also, the majority coalition hopes that putting this matter to a public referendum will make it more palatable for House Democrats.)
The majority coalition passed another bill on Sunday that would have the state's voters resolve an internal education administrative matter: Should principals and teacher be required to mutually agree on an assignment before a teacher is placed in a new school? This issue is a parochial turf battle between teachers and education reformers.
Along strict caucus lines, the Senate voted 25-20 to hold a public referendum on a measure that would limit spending growth on non-education programs to an amount linked to inflation and to the state's population growth. That figure is tentatively set at 2.6 percent of the budget growth rate for non-education matters.
In other words, the Senate majority wants the public to say whether Washington's health programs, social services and corrections budgets should take a significant back seat to education spending from now on. (Four Senate Democrats — Steve Hobbs, Christine Rolfes, Mark Mullet and Annette Cleveland — were absent Sunday.)
The Senate sent a similar bill to the House in late April, where it promptly died. Sunday's bill adds the new referendum clause.
"We received considerable resistance from the House, and we decided to let the people decide,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus' chief budget writer. “This will once again make education our top priority."
The referendum measure was one of three bills that the majority coalition passed on Sunday. The others addressed the budget, workers compensation reform and education reform, the majority coalition's top three policy priorities. The 23-Republican-two-Democrat coalition had passed all three during the regular legislative session. The coalition is now sending tweaked versions of those bills back to the House as lawmakers brace for a second, 30-day special session, which is expected to begin on Wednesday.
The majority coalition leaders are frustrated after having sent roughly 30 bills to the Democratic-controlled House, and watched them go nowhere. They have offered several combinations of the bills they want passed — telling House Democrats to pick one. For the majority coalition, the House’s failure to embrace any of the latest combinations would spell the end of efforts to break the ongoing House-Senate budget impasse. House Democrats argue that the budget deadlock, not passing either party's remaining policy bills, should be the sole focus of the special sessions.
If the two sides cannot pass a compromise budget by July 1, parts of the state government will likely shut down.
The policy bills impasse is one piece of a larger deadlock over spending and taxes. The House wants to spend $34.541 billion in 2013-2015. The Senate wants to spend $33.278 billon. During five weeks of closed-door talks, House Democrats have dropped their budget proposal by $789 million, while the Senate's majority coalition increased its proposal by $68 million. Each side says it prioritizes education improvements, but takes different approaches to paying for them. Republicans want to dramatically cut health and social services and avoid any new taxes. Democrats want less drastic cuts in health and human services.
When it comes to taxes, House Democrats want to eliminate six exemptions, a move that would generate $208 million for education improvements in the 2013-2015 biennium. The Senate majority coalition opposes that approach for two reasons: One is a general coalition stance that all tax exemptions should be kept intact. The other reason has to do with coalition leader Sen. Rodney Tom’s concern that any tinkering with tax exemptions might compel initiative promoter Tim Eyman to launch a public ballot campaign to restore the exemptions. Such a development would put education revenue at risk.
Senate Democratic floor leader David Frockt, D-Seattle, countered that while the majority coalition is not wiling to risk an Eyman-related public referendum on the extra education funding, it appears willing to roll the dice on the fate of health, social services and corrections funds in a similar public referendum.
"The name for this bill should be the 'Cut-Human-Services-And-People-With-Special-Needs Act,'" said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, noted that no one testified in favor of the original bill to limit non-education spending when it was in front of the Senate Ways & Means Committee.
Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, questioned whether putting a limit on non-education spending would affect the state's bond ratings by providing less flexibility in juggling the state's budgets and raising revenue. Hill acknowledged that the state treasurer's office, which analyzes such matters, has not yet been consulted on the issue.
Conway contended that rigid spending limits put in place by Initiative 601 in the early 1990s are part of the reason K-12 education got shortchanged in the 21st century. Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said health, social services and corrections had been severely cut in the past few years, and the just-passed bill would impede efforts to improve those programs. Sen. Jeanne Darneille, D-Tacoma, noted that social and health services programs are easy targets for cuts, since they help people who are frequently marginalized and have little political clout.
The second of the three Republican-oriented bills passed Sunday would lower, to 40, the age of people eligible to receive lump sums in workers compensation settlements. Republicans, who tend to defend corporate interests, argued that workers compensation rates are crippling businesses, and that this bill would lower those rates and provide some relief. Democrats, who tend to advocate for labor, countered that the current system is in good shape with plenty of workers comp reserve money and an improving economy to lower rates.
The third bill would require principals and teachers to mutually agree before a teacher can be assigned to a new school. This issue has been another ongoing flashpoint between teachers on one side, and education reformers on the other. Not surprisingly, the Democrats, who are standing up for teachers on this issue, are facing off against Republicans, who are allied with reformers. Each side claims that school principals supports its position.