Legislature Begins Today With No Agreement on School Funding; Business Leader Urges Lawmakers to Consider State Economy

The 2017 legislative session begins today. While education funding tops the agenda, there’s more to watch. We’ll start at the top with a quick review of recent articles on school funding.

Association of Washington Business president Kris Johnson writes in the Puget Sound Business Journal that how lawmakers address education funding has implications for the state economy.

Rather than immediately resorting to new taxes, lawmakers should go into the legislative session with the premise that it’s possible to fund education and balance the budget without implementing the biggest tax increase in state history…

It’s not easy, but it’s possible if two things happen. First, lawmakers must work together across party lines. Fortunately, the close divide between Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate suggests they ultimately will reach a bipartisan solution.

Second, the economy must continue to grow. Innovation by Washington’s private sector employers has boosted state revenue by billions of dollars in recent years because of natural growth.

This is the right way to generate the resources needed to run state and local government, and to fully fund education.

Johnson’s op-ed frames the coming debate, with lawmakers still disagreeing on the role new taxes will play in meeting the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision requiring full funding of basic education. There’s not yet agreement on how much new money will be required.

The Seattle Times reports,

In a meeting of the task force last week, Democratic lawmakers unveiled their own proposal to satisfy the McCleary decision. That plan would spend $7.3 billion over the next four years to both meet the constitutional requirements and “help every student and educator to achieve their fullest potential.”

…[Republican Senator John] Braun said that based on the task force’s work, he believes the number to satisfy McCleary could be lower, like $1.5 billion per year or less.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, writes in the Spokesman-Review that the real funding debate is about a state income tax.

The real debate for 2017 isn’t about the schools – it’s about an income tax.

He suggests that the push for new revenues to fund McCleary not only doesn’t require an income tax, it doesn’t require any new tax.

Our fiscally responsible Majority Coalition Caucus took control of the Senate in 2013. We had no trouble at all ramping up school spending without raising taxes. 

We were able to do it because tax collections have increased every year, thanks to growth in our state economy. All we had to do was give schools most of that new money. Since 2013 we have increased the schools’ budget a whopping $4.6 billion. We still have a complicated school-funding problem – some districts get more money than others. We can solve it by continuing to budget intelligently, maintaining healthy reserves, and reorganizing the system in a sensible way. It really is that simple.

So the divisions are clear, with no clear path to agreement in sight as the session begins. 

While much of the work on education funding will be handled by a group of key policy leaders, lawmakers will continue to deal with a host of other issues. 

For example, the Seattle Times editorial board, which says lawmakers have a “remarkable opportunity” to fix the “broken” education funding system, points out other items on its to-do list: mental health reforms, Real ID compliance to make Washington driver’s licenses acceptable as identification for commercial air travel, preservation of the Public Records Act, and – as a should-do – repeal of the death penalty.

In Crosscut, Tom James identifies five issues besides education funding. His list includes taxes, Real ID, mental health, deadly force and “Trump, marijuana and Obamacare.”

And, as the Washington Research Council points out, legislators have three budgets to write

Writing and passing a two-year state operating budget (the largest budget – it funds most general state government services and programs), transportation budget and capital (construction and maintenance of state facilities) budget…

In the best of times, passing all three budgets on time can be tricky. In a year where major decisions must be made not only on how public schools will be funded and where the money will come from, but also how teachers will be paid, how much they’ll be paid, how the state will enact accountability measures, whether school employee unions will continue to collectively bargain at the local level or whether collective bargaining will be with the state, how school employees will get their health insurance, and many other complex issues, it seems highly unlikely legislators and the governor could – or should – be done in 105 days.

The session begins today; few predict when it will end.