There is a joke around Olympia these days that life in the Legislature is like the movie Groundhog Day. Negotiators go behind closed doors, rumors fly about an impending deal, nothing is confirmed and then the same thing happens all over again the next day. And the next. And the next.
At the heart of the budget impasse this year is whether or not we need new revenue to fully pay our education tab. The tab has three main parts. The first two are required by the State Supreme Court in its McCleary decision. The third comes from Initiative 1351, approved by voters this past fall. It mandates 1) lowering class sizes in early grades, all day kindergarten, and paying for basic maintenance and supplies; 2) comprehensive educator salary reform, which would require reforming Washington’s unconstitutional and inequitable levy system; and 3) lowering class sizes in the upper grades and adding support staff like counselors, school nurses and social workers.
Budget proposals released by the House and Senate provide alternative methods for funding only the first of the three components mentioned above. A compromise budget will likely provide at least $1.3 billion in additional funding towards achieving the first part. This is an important step forward on education funding, but we do not believe that it is sufficient to meet either our constitutional, court-required or moral obligations to fully fund education.
Last week, the debate began to get more specific about what revenue is really needed to address all our obligations. A bipartisan bill was introduced to address the second part of our education tab: educator salaries and levy reform. The bill clearly states that to fund the policy “requires additional sources of revenue [which] should not be accomplished through reductions to other parts of the state budget.”
Levy reform is complex and the bill still has flaws that need to be fixed, but it is a start. Most important, it puts forward a solution that can be worked with and tweaked, and it makes clear that fixing the levy problem is possible but requires additional revenue of about $3.5 billion. That amount buys us what the court has ordered us to do: teacher salaries funded by the state and not reliant on unequal local levies, an annual cost of living adjustment for teachers and a restructure of our levy system so that all students have access to basic education regardless of where they live.
The third piece of our tab is Initiative 1351. Although often referred to as the class size initiative, the reality is that it not only reduces class sizes in all grades, but also ensures that we provide support staff that has been cut over the years, including counselors, school nurses and social workers. These employees increase student success and help close the opportunity gap. We believe strongly that we should be able to provide every student a class size that is better than 49th in the nation.
The bipartisan levy reform bill recognizes that numbers don’t lie. We cannot meet our education funding obligations without additional revenue. But this revenue must be both sustainable and responsible.
Our state already has the grim honor of being the most regressive and upside-down tax system in the country, with the middle class and working poor paying far more of their income in taxes than the richest among us. From 2009 to 2012, our state was one of only five in the country where all of the income growth accrued to the wealthiest 1 percent. These income and educational opportunity gaps will only increase if we do not stop relying on cuts to essential services and regressive taxation.
This session, we have a chance to meet both our legal and moral obligations on fully funding education and take a beginning step on fairer and more sustainable sources of revenue. A modest capital gains tax on 5,000 to 10,000 of our wealthiest residents — many of whom have stated publicly that they want to contribute their fair share to our state’s economy — would help us achieve both goals.
Republican Gov. Dan Evans, one of the great leaders in our state’s history, had it right when he said back in the 1960s that if we did not act quickly on tax reform, “the degree of the problem will become too great to remedy.”
Fifty years later, we can see how right he was.
We can no longer fail our kids and our state. We have a great opportunity right in front of us to make some fundamental reforms to our education system and to our tax system. Let’s not squander it.