Senate passes GOP McCleary fix; early progress is good, but legislative agreement on a plan will likely take a while

Yesterday, on the 24th day of a the 105-day legislative session (assuming against precedent that there won’t be a special session or two), the Senate passed SSB 5607, the Senate GOP’s proposed McCleary fix. The calendar shows it’s scheduled for a February 6 public hearing in the House Appropriations Committee “if referred to committee.” 

While it may well be the 105th day (or later) before the full Legislature solves the funding-and-accountability reforms required by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary order requiring full funding of basic education, yesterday’s action marks progress.

We’ve written about the Senate GOP measure here and here and watched much of the floor debate. While the measure passed on a party-line vote, we were encouraged by much of the discussion. With the narrow partisan majorities in the divided Legislature, bipartisan cooperation will be required. Before that can happen, legislation has to be in play. SSB 5607 is a good start. 

The Associated Press reports,

The chamber passed the Republican proposal on a 25-24 vote, with no Democrat — except one who caucuses with Republicans to give them their majority — voting in favor of it. The measure now heads to the Democratic-controlled House, where it will be negotiated as both sides continue to work toward a compromise.

Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system. Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.

The GOP plan requires voter approval. As the AP writes, the levy reform may be problematic.

The GOP-proposed levy changes are expected to bring in $2 billion a year for education, and the state would also spend an additional $700 million per year to backfill to ensure that each school district has a minimum of $12,500 per student, with higher per-student funding to address issues like poverty or special education.

Republicans say they can pay for the backfill with existing resources. The plan would raise the local school levy in some places, like Seattle, and decrease it in others, something Democrats have argued is unfair.

The parties remain divided on how to pay for the fix.

Democrats have estimated that the state will need to spend more than $7 billion over the next four years on schools. While the Democrats’ haven’t offered specifics on how to pay for it, they have 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. But they don’t seek to make significant reductions to the local levy system.

The state Supreme Court has said that lawmakers must have a funding plan in place by the end of session. As we said, it looks like that might take a while. But early progress is good.