Politics & Government

State House passes plan to fix school funding, but not how to pay for it

Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, left, speaks on the House floor Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, during debate over education funding at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The House approved its education funding proposal Wednesday, just weeks after the Republican-led Senate passed its own plan. Both sides will now need to negotiate a final compromise. Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state's basic education system.
Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, left, speaks on the House floor Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, during debate over education funding at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The House approved its education funding proposal Wednesday, just weeks after the Republican-led Senate passed its own plan. Both sides will now need to negotiate a final compromise. Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state's basic education system. AP

The Washington state House approved a plan Wednesday to fix the way the state pays for public schools, but without approving the taxes Democratic leaders say will be necessary to pay for it.

The measure, which cleared the House on a 50-47 vote Wednesday, is Democrats’ preferred way to respond to a state Supreme Court order requiring lawmakers to fully fund public schools.

House Bill 1843 would boost what the state pays to hire beginning teachers to $45,500, while also requiring the state to pay school districts an average of about $71,000 per teacher and $117,000 per school administrator.

It differs from a rival plan favored by Republican leaders in the state Senate, which would impose a new statewide property tax to replace local school district property tax levies.

In the McCleary case, the high court has called on the Legislature to end the use of local levies to pay school employee salaries, which the court has said are basic education costs that should be paid by the state.

The passage of the House plan Wednesday sets up what is expected to be a long negotiation toward a final McCleary solution.

While Democrats hold a slim majority in the state House, the Senate is controlled by a conservative majority that consists of 24 Republicans and one Democrat. The Senate approved the school-funding plan favored by Republican leaders earlier this month.

State Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes and a sponsor of the Democratic plan, said it is crucial that lawmakers come up with a solution this year. She said passing the bill Wednesday was an important first step.

“Is it perfect? No,” said Lytton, who chairs the House Finance Committee. “Do we have a lot of work to do? We absolutely do.”

“...This is really hard work, but I know that we’re up to the task,” Lytton said.

During Wednesday’s debate on the House floor, Republicans criticized the lack of details in the Democratic plan. So far, Democratic leaders haven’t laid out how they’ll pay for their plan, which is estimated to cost about $7.6 billion over the next four years.

“I question whether or not it’s really a serious plan,” said state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver.

Democratic leaders have said they’ll look to a variety of new revenue options — including taxing capital gains from the sales stocks and bonds, as well as taxing carbon emissions — to cover their plan’s costs.

Republicans also attacked the Democratic plan because it wouldn’t put substantial new limits on how local school districts can use their local levy money. Without such safeguards, the state could be racing toward another constitutional crisis in which local school districts are improperly using levy money to cover state responsibilities, said state Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg.

No Republicans voted for the legislation on the House floor Wednesday.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats have said a McCleary solution isn’t possible without new revenue.

The plan put forth by the GOP-led Senate majority wouldn’t require new taxes, Republican leaders have said. But it would rely on about $800 million a year in unspecified savings, which GOP leaders have said can be found in the state’s existing budget.

Senate leaders haven’t laid out exactly where they’d find that money, however.

And, according to new numbers put out Wednesday by legislative staff, the plan that cleared the Senate this month will cost more than GOP leaders originally estimated.

While earlier estimates suggested the GOP plan would cost about $5.3 billion over the next four years, the numbers released Wednesday by nonpartisan staff estimate the plan would cost closer to $6.9 billion during that timeframe.

Still, Senate Republican leaders say many Washington homeowners will see their property taxes go down under their plan, due to how it would simultaneously reduce local school district levies.

House and Senate leaders say additional details of their plans will be hashed out in the coming weeks, when each chamber is scheduled to release its proposed two-year budget.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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