Politics & Government

New taxes? Program cuts? Battle for education billions begins in Legislature

Reporters and editors listen as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during the Associated Press Legislative Preview on Thursday at the Capitol in Olympia.
Reporters and editors listen as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during the Associated Press Legislative Preview on Thursday at the Capitol in Olympia. The Associated Press

The battle over finding billions of additional dollars to pay for K-12 education in Washington pits Democrats who say new taxes are needed against Republicans saying schools must take priority over other government programs before asking for more revenue.

The challenges facing state lawmakers were on stark display Thursday, with Democrats sharply criticizing the GOP at a legislative forum for not coming up with a detailed education funding plan and Republicans countering that they need more information to bring to their caucus members to come up with a viable proposal.

Lawmakers, who convene their 2017 session Monday, must find billions in new funding this year for education to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling. The Legislature has already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the 2012 ruling, but the biggest piece remaining is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries.

We’ve been going at this about 30 years. If it was really simple, we probably would’ve gotten this completed sometime back.

Sen. Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville

Speaking at the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview, Sen. Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said although the Supreme Court forced lawmakers’ hands, the debate over education funding has lasted for decades.

“We’ve been going at this about 30 years. If it was really simple, we probably would’ve gotten this completed sometime back,” he said.

But Democrats accused Republicans of not doing their homework by failing to offer a specific education funding proposal before the Legislature begins next week.

We are still waiting for our Republican counterparts. … Only half the group did the job we were tasked with.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island

“As of yesterday, the Democrats have a very detailed proposal,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “We are still waiting for our Republican counterparts. ... Only half the group did the job we were tasked with.”

Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed spending $2.7 billion over the next two years to satisfy the court decision. Inslee would raise money for education by increasing business taxes on attorneys, real estate agents and others, instituting a carbon tax and levying a 7.9 percent capital gains tax on the sales of stocks and bonds above a certain threshold. The state’s business community and Republicans have criticized Inslee’s ideas, saying they’ll hurt the economy.

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature presented their ideas Wednesday.

The Democratic proposal estimates the state will need to spend more than $7 billion over the next four years on schools. While the Democrats’ plan doesn’t specify funding sources, it notes potential sources of revenue such as closure of tax exemptions and a new capital gains tax.

Republicans released “Guiding Principles” that didn’t include a projection on costs, but did include a statement that education should be funded first, “before other priorities of government.”

Rolfes said because Republicans didn’t come up with more specifics, as expected, the Legislature is hamstrung.

“It is now impossible for us, by Monday, to have the bill,” she said.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said the GOP needs more information so lawmakers can come up with a proposal that has the full backing of the caucus – something crucial to ultimately getting a plan passed out of the Legislature.

“Right now we don’t have all those ducks in a row,” he said.

Schoesler said Democrats were too quick to go to tax increases to pay for education, adding that Inslee’s budget used that issue as “a shield” to seek too much money for government.

“I don’t think the biggest tax increase in history is needed” to provide Washington’s children with a good education, Schoesler said.

Inslee, who described his spending plan as a “get the job done budget,” said he sympathized with caucus leaders who have to find consensus among many lawmakers.

“I only have to convince one person” before proposing a budget, he joked.

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