Public and lawmakers agree that funding education is the goal, but remain divided what it takes to get there

As lawmakers approach the beginning of the 2017 legislative session next week, consensus on how to meet the Legislature’s primary challenge – full funding of basic education – remains as elusive as ever. The bipartisan task force established to recommend a funding solution is divided on partisan lines. 

The Associated Press reports,

At Wednesday’s next-to-last meeting of the Education Funding Task Force, Democrats and Republicans presented their recommendations separately, as opposed to a bipartisan proposal to discuss with their respective caucuses.

The Democratic proposal estimates that the state will need to spend more than $7 billion over the next four years on schools. While the Democrats’ plan doesn’t offer specifics on how to pay for it, it noted several potential sources of revenue, including closure of tax exemptions, changes to the state property and business and occupation taxes and a new capital gains tax.

Republicans released “Republican Guiding Principles” that didn’t include a projection on costs, but a statement that education should be funded first, “before other priorities of government” and that any revenue conversation should consider the use of existing resources.

The Elway Poll reveals that the public also sees education funding as the state’s top priority, but continues to be skeptical of the need for higher taxes. The Seattle Times reports,

A new poll suggests voters want Washington’s Legislature to put education at the top of its to-do list in the coming session — but most said they’d rather cut government than raise taxes to solve the state’s school-funding crisis.

The statewide poll by the nonpartisan firm Elway Research found 45 percent of voters ranked education as the top priority for lawmakers, with the economy coming in second at 22 percent.

Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner writes,

Elway’s poll found a majority of respondents wary of tax increases, with 56 percent saying they’d support lawmakers funding education first and financing the rest of government with what’s left over — even if that means cutting programs. Only 34 percent opposed that concept. 

By comparison, voters appeared much more divided when asked if the state should raise business taxes to fund schools without making deep cuts to other services: 47 percent said they’d support that, but 46 percent opposed the idea.

Pollster Stuart Elway noted the poll didn’t specify which programs might face the ax if lawmakers don’t want to raise taxes, making it easier to say cuts are acceptable. Still, he said the results do show a resistance to new taxes.

Neil Morton reports on the task force’s divisions in the Seattle Times, noting the group is unlikely to reach agreement at their scheduled last meeting next Monday.

The Democrats on a state task force on school funding want to spend $1.6 billion during the next two years to provide competitive wages for teachers and settle the landmark McCleary case.

Their proposal, released Wednesday, would increase teacher average pay to nearly $71,000 across the state, and aims to provide relief for school districts that rely on local property taxes to recruit and retain educators and other school workers.

The plan ultimately would cost more than $7 billion to fully implement through 2021, and would pay for the higher salaries, reduce class sizes and more. It also calls for a new reporting and auditing system for school districts to ensure they are not dependent on local taxes to fund basic education, which the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 is the state’s responsibility.

Among the disagreements,

Unlike Democrats, Republicans want to change the rules of collective bargaining and perhaps create a statewide system of health benefits, so those would not be negotiated district by district.

The governor’s preferred budget proposal includes a $4.4 billion tax increase, much of which is aimed at McCleary compliance. The Washington Research Council analyst Emily Makings takes a close look at the governor’s “book 1” (no new taxes) budget and finds,

Policy level changes in the Book 1 budget would not reduce spending in any agency. There is a big caveat, however: The Book 1 budget does not include any spending for McCleary salaries. Instead of the $2.4 billion his preferred budget would spend on McCleary salaries, the Book 1 budget would restore a one-time cost-of-living adjustment in the amount of $204.6 million.

The Book 1 budget would fund the I-732 COLA for teachers (part of maintenance level), and it would fund the collective bargaining agreements with public employees. Indeed, for many agencies the only policy changes are for staff compensation. Of all the NGFS+ policy changes in the Book 1 proposal, 89.8 percent ($1.039 billion) are compensation-related.

I had been curious to see what the governor’s spending priorities would be, given no new revenue, in a biennium in which the state will have to fully fund basic education under the McCleary decision. So it’s disappointing that the Book 1 budget alternative ignores the McCleary salary issue. 

The Northwest News Network provides additional coverage of the task force meeting, possibly foreshadowing some contentious debates in the coming months.

Republicans published a list of “guiding principles.”

That prompted this scolding from House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat.

“We’ve been meeting as a group for seven months and I’m looking down and I’m seeing that your document says ‘Republican Guiding Principles.’ If after seven months you have guiding principles, it’s just not enough,” Sullivan said.

Republican  Sen. John Braun, vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, pushed back forcefully. He critiqued the Democrats’ plan as failed ideas from the past.

“Please refrain from scolding us for our approach,” he said. “Our approach is legitimate. We think we have a better chance. These proposals that you trot out from yesteryear have been tried in this way and have not succeeded.”

Could be a long session.