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Dear Friends and Neighbors,
In a matter of a few days, our weather changed from months of sunshine and little precipitation to days of much needed rain and cooler temperatures. There's no doubt that fall is in the air as we say hello to September, and begin sending kids back to school. As we do so, I wanted to provide a quick update from Olympia about the discussions over education funding.
Thank you to our firefighters
Before I get to the main topic of this newsletter, I'd like to take a moment to publicly thank all of the firefighters and volunteers who courageously worked to save lives and property from the many horrific wildfires in North Central Washington. Many of these firefighters left our communities in Snohomish, Skagit and King counties to pitch in. Hopefully, cooler temperatures and recent rainfall will give them all a break so that these fires can be quickly contained.
Also, my thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the three firefighters who died in the line of duty and to those injured and hospitalized. We pray for a quick recovery for the injured.
Historic education funding increases in state operating budget
I'm very proud of the 2015-17 operating budget adopted at the end of June because it provides historic funding increases for K-12 education. With a vote of 38-10 in the Senate and 90-8 in the House, the measure passed with the greatest bipartisan support of any operating budget in decades.
Here's a quick look at new education funding in the budget:
- Invests an additional $2.9 billion in K-12 education, a 19 percent increase;
- Dedicates 48 percent of the state budget for K-12 education — the largest amount in more than 30 years;
- Provides cost-of-living increases for teachers, plus a one-time salary raise;
- Makes major investments in early learning and expands all-day kindergarten;
- Reduces class sizes in grades K-3, where research shows it does the most good; and
- $200 million was provided in the capital budget for classroom construction.
These increases are among efforts the Legislature made to respond to the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision.
Supreme Court sanctions
Despite these historic K-12 funding levels, the state Supreme Court said they still fall short of its directive under the McCleary decision “to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”
On Aug. 13, justices ordered contempt sanctions against the state in the amount of $100,000 a day until the Legislature delivers an education funding plan that satisfies the court and shows how the state will fully fund education by 2018.
The high court asked the governor to convene a fourth special session. As the court's press release says, “Sanctions accrue daily, to be held in a segregated account for the benefit of basic education until the contempt order is lifted.”
There are several things troubling against this latest ruling.
- First, the Legislature has followed through on all McCleary funding commitments. Our state remains on track for full compliance of the 2012 McCleary order by the original 2018 deadline. Unfortunately, the court has added new deadlines and expanded the definition of basic education to include elements such as school construction. How are we able to comply when the court keeps moving the goal post?
- By directing appropriations under McCleary and setting up “a segregated account” for education, the court is trying to do the job of the Legislature, which is outside of its constitutional powers. Only the Legislature has the constitutional vested power to appropriate public monies (Article VIII, section 4), and the power of taxation (Article VII, section 1).
- As noted above, we have provided historic increases in K-12 education. In fact, I have been one of the leading advocates for a solution called “Fund Education First,” which would require the Legislature to pass a separate K-12 education budget before any other state appropriation. My House Republican colleagues and I have consistently stood up for students and equity in our public school system.
Where we go from here
Although the court wants the Legislature to be called into an immediate special session, I have met with Gov. Inslee and the other legislative leaders in the House and Senate. We have decided it is best not to rush the process, but to do it correctly by allowing a bipartisan legislative team to use this interim before the January 2016 session to find solutions to satisfy the court's concerns.
There are three options to address this issue: levy reform, new tax increases or cuts. All of these options would take time to develop, implement and phase in. Whether a plan is adopted later this year or in the 2016 legislative session, it will have a negligible impact on school district budgets. In the meantime, the fines will accrue. While $100,000 a day sounds like a lot of money, keep in mind the total amount of the accrual represents a very small percentage of the overall state budget and huge increases the Legislature has already dedicated toward basic education over the coming years.
The most likely option: levy reform
Part of the court's concern is that schools have been relying too heavily on local property tax levies to fund “basic education” costs such as teacher salaries, transportation and operating expenses.
The local school levy is one of the most regressive taxes in the state, where areas with high property values such as Seattle and Bellevue pay less than 30 percent of the median tax rate. At the same time, the most impoverished areas of the state pay significantly more.
One of the reforms under discussion is the so-called “levy swap,” which would implement a revenue-neutral swap of state property tax for local levies, and stay within the constitutional 1 percent limit for regular property taxes. This would bring $1 billion of existing local excess levies into a more regular and dependable tax structure – the statewide property tax.
Democrats and the governor have advocated for a new capital gains income tax, which I believe is a terrible idea. A capital gains income tax opens the door to a state income tax (a very unpopular idea with voters over the years), has proven to be a volatile revenue stream, and may be unconstitutional. My House Republican colleagues and I have always said that new tax increases should be the last resort. And many of us will not support a new tax increase of any kind.
I believe the levy swap may be our best and most equitable option to satisfy the court requirements. It would make our most regressive tax fair. And it would NOT create a new tax.
Contact my office with your questions, comments
Thank you for allowing me to explain these issues. I welcome your comments on these or other legislative matters. Please contact my office. You'll find my contact information below.
In your service,
426A Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7967 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000