School funding without taxes sacrifices the poor

The News TribuneApril 25, 2013 

‘Fund education first” has been a Republican slogan for years in this state. The idea is appealing, but – if it’s combined with hostility toward any tax – the reality is harsh.

The slogan got a big boost from last year’s McCleary decision, in which the state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to, well, fund education first. The court found that lawmakers had routinely violated the state constitution by underfunding the K-12 system while expanding other programs.

McCleary flipped that: Schoolchildren are supposed to get the state’s first dollars while other state beneficiaries wait in the kitchen for the leftovers.

Earlier this month, the Republican-dominated state Senate approved an education-first budget while refusing to extend a number of soon-to-expire taxes. This reflects what the GOP has become in this state: a party unified only by hatred of taxes.

The inevitable result is that money was carved out of Washington’s social safety net, the collection of programs designed to help the poor, elderly and disabled stay above water.

The Republican budget does some smart things. For example, it would repeal existing mandates for automatic pay raises for teachers, and paid family and medical leave for parents.

The Legislature doesn’t fund them, so what’s the point? The Democratic House doesn’t want them repealed – but it doesn’t propose to pay for them either. End the charade.

The Senate would also – unlike the House and governor – require co-payments for Medicaid. Co-payments, however small, should be required for most medical services. Unnecessary “free” visits to emergency rooms and clinics inflate medical costs for everyone, which threatens health coverage for the very people no-cost care is supposed to benefit.

But some of the Senate’s cuts are inhumane. For example, one provision would deeply reduce funding for Housing and Essential Needs, which provides housing for very poor, disabled adults.

Another provision would hurt WorkFirst, which helps parents who use welfare become self-supporting. Another would cut cash grants for disabled adults waiting for federal disability from $197 a month to a pathetic $99.

Meanwhile, the Senate rejects House proposals for a tax on bottled water and extending taxes on some professional services and on beer. A handful of modest tax extensions could preserve several hundred million dollars for the safety net.

Fully funding education in a responsible way will require tradeoffs. Some of those tradeoffs will inevitably involve cuts to other programs, perhaps including social welfare. But the least popular tradeoff — taxes — is the only way the Legislature can do schools and compassion at the same time.

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