Democrats and Republicans still divided on education funding

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OLYMPIA — Just days before the start of the legislative session, Democrats and Republicans remain clearly divided over how to accomplish their main task this year: compliance with a court mandate for the state to fulfill its constitutional requirement to properly fund basic education.

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.

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.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat from Covington and a member of the task force, criticized the lack of specifics offered by Republicans, noting that the task force — created after lawmakers failed to reach a solution during last year’s session — has been meeting for months on the issue.

“The fact is that when we got appointed to serve on this task force it was expected that we would provide leadership within our caucus, so that we could actually get into the details and lead on these issues,” he said. “If after 7 months you have guiding principles, it’s just not enough.”

Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center said that their approach was to get more of their GOP colleagues on board first before committing to specific ideas.

“We need to make sure we’re not setting ourselves up for failure at the front end, and that’s the attitude I carry with me in getting this done,” she said. “When I say that I will continue to work in a bipartisan bicameral way, it is with the best of intent that I will do so.”

The two sides did appear to agree on at least a few things: maintaining local levies in some form but ensuring that they are only used for education enhancements that aren’t considered basic education, and additional reporting requirements to ensure that those levies are being used properly.

The task force is set to meet one more time on Monday morning, just hours before the 105-day legislative session convenes.