To his credit, Gov. Jay Inslee's State of the State speech Tuesday took direct aim at the most pressing issue facing state government. Whether it hit the mark, however, is another question.
Inslee surprised many by saying that he will present the Legislature with a plan to increase spending on K-12 education by $200 million. Just last month, in putting forth a supplemental budget proposal for 2014, Inslee had indicated that additional funding for education would have to wait a year, until the next biennial budget is discussed. Pragmatism, however, got the better of him.
"I've had to rethink that approach," Inslee said during his address at the state Capitol. "Or, to be candid, the Supreme Court has forced us all to look anew at funding our education system this year."
Fair enough. Last year, in compiling the 2013-15 state budget, lawmakers added an additional $1 billion for K-12 education -- a nod and a wink toward the massive spending additions mandated by the 2012 McCleary decision. Last week, the state Supreme Court essentially said, "Thanks, now where's the rest?" The Legislature has until 2018 to provide adequate funding for education, as defined by the court. That's what led to Inslee's proactive announcement in the State of the State speech. But now the hard work begins.
"The court wrote that it wants to see 'immediate, concrete action … not simply promises,'" Inslee noted, adding that he would look at closing tax breaks to pay for the $200 million, and that part of that funding would go toward "a long-overdue cost-of-living adjustment for our educators." That's where the governor misfired.
In 2000, Initiative 732 passed with 63 percent of the statewide vote, approving cost-of-living increases for educators. But those increases have been suspended for the past six years, falling victim to the Great Recession. Because of that, the governor's proposal is likely to result in some heavyweight legislative battles this year.
There's little doubt that a $200 million boost to education funding — if it can, indeed, be paid for with the closing of tax breaks — would be a necessary expenditure. But even the issue of ending tax breaks will be a sticking point in the wake of $8.7 billion worth of tax exemptions recently handed out to Boeing.
The state has until 2018 to add between $3.5 billion and $4.5 billion to education funding, and last year's $1 billion was merely a down payment. "The court wrote last week that it doesn't want to be forced to give specific funding directives or hold the Legislature in contempt," Inslee said. "The court was clear when it said that 'this case remains fully subject to judicial enforcement.' We must not let that happen."
Yet while there is little wiggle room for the state when it comes to funding education, there is plenty of room for examining how that money is spent. In having their cost-of-living pay increases suspended during the economic downturn, teachers are no different from most private-sector employees. Times have been tough all over, and any expenditure of the public's money must be accompanied by due diligence. Getting money to students in the most direct fashion possible should be the goal of any legislative plan to direct money to education, and logic dictates that a cost-of-living salary increase for teachers is not at the top of that priority list.
Inslee is correct to make education spending a priority; the court has mandated that the state has little choice. But after firing that opening salvo, the governor should be prepared for a furious battle.