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News / Northwest

Senate GOP releases budget with more education money

By RACHEL LA CORTE, Associated Press
Published: March 21, 2017, 11:08am

OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans on Tuesday released a $43 billion two-year budget that puts an additional $1.8 billion toward education, paid for, in part, by a statewide property tax that ultimately would replace local district levies.

The budget plan — which spends about $5 billion more than the current two-year budget — also relies on about $200 million in transfers from other accounts and spending cuts in some state programs. The plan moved quickly to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which held a public hearing Tuesday afternoon. The full chamber could vote on it as early as Thursday.

House Democrats are set to release their budget plan next week, and then both sides will need to negotiate a final budget, something they hope they can do before the current 105-day legislative session ends on April 23. If they don’t, they will need to go into overtime special sessions to resolve their differences.

“We’ve delivered a budget that’s balanced, that’s ready to go,” said Republican Sen. John Braun, the chamber’s key budget writer. “There are people who won’t like every part of it, but we tried to be thoughtful about what we put in and what we didn’t. The most important thing is we made sure we can pay the bill.”

Local Angle

Senate Republicans in Olympia unveiled their budget Tuesday, calling it a dramatic investment in the state’s education system. Democrats immediately countered, describing it as a “cold-blooded” proposal that protects the wealthy and hurts the most vulnerable.

The Senate could vote on the proposal this week. The House, which is controlled by Democrats, is expected to reveal its budget proposal next week. After that, negotiations between the two parties will kick off in earnest.

“We all know that providing for basic education is the state’s paramount duty, but the Senate budget proposal is the first since 1983 to invest more than half of the state’s general fund into K-12,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who is one of the key negotiators on education funding.

The biggest issue facing lawmakers this year is solving the chronic underfunding of the public school system. Their goal this session is to end an overreliance on local levies, which have been used to pay for basic education in previous years.

“But this is more than an education budget — we also address critical needs concerning mental health, foster care, seniors, and people with developmental disabilities. No budget is perfect, but this proposal doesn’t require the big new taxes the governor and others have proposed, and with a month to go in our regular session, it puts the Legislature in position to complete our work on schedule,” Rivers said in a statement.

The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn its 105-day session on April 23. If lawmakers can’t strike a budget deal by then, overtime legislative sessions will be necessary.

The Republican plan is a $43 billion two-year budget. It calls for funneling $1.8 billion toward the state’s education system. It would make changes to the statewide property tax to offset the current reliance on local levies.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said she’s concerned the property tax increase would unfairly burden homeowners and make it more expensive to own a home. She said it’s her biggest concern in the budget.

But Cleveland also cited concerns about cuts to the state’s food assistance program and suspension of higher education financial aid programs.

“I see this budget as having very dire consequences for the working individuals and families of our district and state,” Cleveland said.

— Lauren Dake

One of the issues the Legislature is dealing with this year is resolving the reliance on local levies to pay for teacher and school staff salaries. Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system. The state Supreme Court has said that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018 to fully fund education, but that the details of how to do that — as well as how lawmakers will pay for it — must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

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 the local property-tax levies.

Under the Senate measure, the new statewide property tax rate would be transitioned in starting next year, but would not be fully implemented until Jan. 1, 2019.

The plan would raise the local school levy in some places, like Seattle, and decrease it in others, though the plan released Tuesday has a lower tax rate of $1.55 per $1,000 of assessed value than $1.80 Republicans originally proposed. Braun said that 83 percent of taxpayers would have lower property tax rates under the plan. 

Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker said while he appreciated the investments the Republican plan made in mental health and education, the property tax plan creates winners and losers among taxpayers.

“We can’t have a property tax system that dramatically increases property taxes in one area, decreases them in another,” he said.

The GOP plan also increases the minimum beginning salary for teachers to $45,000 from $35,700, and creates a new housing allowance of up to $10,000 for teachers and staff in high cost of living areas. The plan also prohibits teacher strikes.

The Senate budget puts additional money into mental health, including the creation of six new crisis walk-in centers, and higher education, with the intent of increasing the number of slots available for new students at the state’s four-year institutions.

But the budget plan rejects collective bargaining agreements with state employees that would have cost the state about $500 million over the next two years. Instead, the budget proposes funding for a $500 raise for all state agency employees, including those in higher education, starting July 1, and another $500 raise on July 1, 2018. That change would cost the state about $90 million over the next two years.

Other collective bargaining agreements with the Teamsters Local 117 corrections employees and with State Patrol officers are fully funded as negotiated with the governor’s office, at a cost of about $79 million over the next two years.

The plan fully funds health benefits for state employees as previously negotiated, at a cost of $18 million over the next two years.

Braun said the collective bargaining process lacks transparency and is historically expensive.

Cuts to state programs include more than $56 million to a program that provides housing-related assistance to people unable to work. Braun noted that they created a new family homeless assistance program to focus on families who were previously served by the program, and he said the elimination of funding to the original program would affect about 3,000 people who are considered able to work. Savings also include $96 million from the temporary assistance for needy families program, with an expectation that at least $63 million will be saved by using federal funds.