Lawmakers brace for bruising battle over education in Olympia
Lawmakers returned to Olympia Monday for the start of what many consider one of the most critical legislative sessions ever.
With a deadline looming, the battle over how best to pay billions of dollars more for education will dominate everything for the next three-plus months.
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It’s been five years since the Washington Supreme Court ruled the state was failing one its paramount duties, constitutional funding – fully funding our kid’s education
The court gave lawmakers until 2018 to come up with a plan and has subsequently held the legislature in contempt of court for failing to make adequate progress.
Last year, the legislature created a task force that was supposed to come up with recommendations by Monday.
Democrats did so, unveiling their framework last week. But Republicans say they’ve come up with guiding principles and won’t have specifics until more talks involving all lawmakers, frustrating their counterparts.
“We could have done that in one day. We didn’t need seven months. We spent that seven months actually putting a plan together,” said Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-Covington).
The House Majority Leader is one of eight lawmakers on the education funding task force.
His side last week released an eight-point blueprint that calls for higher teacher pay, smaller classrooms, expanded services and, most important, funding that doesn’t depend on local levies.
But it doesn’t spell out the costs or how to pay for it.
And Rep. J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) says that’s a big challenge.
“It’s politically easy to show stakeholders what they’re going to get. The hard part is deciding how you’re going to pay for it. And I don’t see that in the other plan,” Wilcox said.
While the Legislature is sharply divided, Governor Inslee last month unveiled a massive budget with over $4 billion in new taxes to pay for education.
It would be covered by tax hikes on the wealthy, a carbon tax on polluters and an increase in the state’s business and occupation tax on professional service providers like lawyers and accountants.
At the same time, it would cut property taxes to roughly 75 percent of taxpayers across the state.
“Look, nobody’s wild about raising revenues in any circumstance. But we sized it to fit the job. This is a get the job done budget,” Inslee said
But Republicans declared it dead on arrival, blasting what they call an exorbitant and potentially unnecessary tax hike.
“We’ve seen incredible growth in our state economy and we still don’t have a fully formed idea of the size of the box,” said Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center), co-chair of the education funding task force.
“So I think it’s premature to say ‘yeah, we’re going to do taxes, we’re doing this, we’re doing that’ until we really know exactly what we’re looking for.
Many veteran Olympia observers say it appears to be the same old Republican versus Democrat divide that has led to special sessions and work left undone.
But Rivers insists after all the typical political wrangling, she’s confident a deal will get done.
“While there may be an apparent split, we’re really not that far apart on many of the issues, and I think that’s really positive,” Rivers said.
The Legislature has approved billions of dollars over the past few years to close the McCleary gap. The most pressing matter is creating a stable, dependable pipeline from Olympia to the state’s schools, so districts don’t have to go to voters every year with hat in hand, most notably for teacher pay.
And most agree something must be done to fix significant inequities in the allocation of levy dollars between more affluent and struggling districts.
“We have poor districts that grapple with lots of social problems that are paying three and four times as much in terms of local levy rates,” Wilcox said. “And not only are they paying a higher rate, they’re paying more dollars.”
And Wilcox argues with so much at stake, Republicans are right to take their time and get everyone’s input over the next few weeks.
Still, all sides are trying to sound a conciliatory note despite forecasts of a contentious battle lasting well beyond the scheduled 105-day session.