As the 2017 biennial budget session of the Washington legislature opened Monday, January 9, all eyes were on the Joint Education Funding Task Force. Under a law passed in 2016, it was by Monday supposed to finalize key recommendations to fellow lawmakers. The topic: how to transfer more of the K-12 basic education funding burden from local school districts to the state. That didn’t happen because of a stand-off between Democratic and Republican task force members. Their dispute is over where the money should come from; new taxes versus surplus revenue and existing spending.
Democrats on the panel unsuccessfully attempted to approve a report containing their proposal on how to fully fund education. That plan calls for $7.3 billion in new basic education spending over the next four years, and a variety of new taxes. It is similar to Governor Jay Inslee’s education spending plan announced late last year, calling for $4.4 billion in new taxes to meet the State Supreme Court’s McCleary case mandate to fully fund K-12, with the spigot refreshed in time for 2018.
Republican members of the advisory body were equally unsuccessful in their effort to submit the task force’s findings without recommendations. Instead of a proposal, the Republican caucus unveiled guiding principles for addressing McCleary. Those do not mention a specific spending increase, and focus instead on collective bargaining reform, and dedicating more state revenue growth to plug education spending gaps.
Republicans plan to release their proposal sometime next month. The current deadlock puts the task force at odds with its own core objective, in SB 6195, passed during the 2016 legislative session.
Divergent Views On Delay
Refusing to make recommendations is just “simply passing the buck again after seven months’ worth of work and not complying with the legislation that we voted for,” said task force member and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-47).
However, Republican task force members such as Rep. Paul Harris (R-17) warned against including recommendations in their report when all the data compiled by the private consultant on local school district expenditures is still not fully available. According to legislative staff, that information will be fully compiled February 1.
“If we send out figures that we disagree with, the (State Supreme) court will hold us accountable,” Harris said. “I think it’s important that we get the information right.”
The sentiment was shared by another task force member, Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18), who said premature recommendations could mean “our feet are held to the fire for a standard that may not be correct.”
However, Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23) told Lens that Republican concerns over the State Supreme Court are “hogwash” because the information is already publicly available.
“The issue here is not whether there are numbers on a piece of paper the court will use to hold us accountable,” she said during the meeting. “The issue is that last spring the legislature said we would use a task force to come up with recommendations.”
Revenue Clash Looms
The Democratic task force members’ proposal includes new revenue sources to consider:
- Creating an income tax on capital gains
- Increasing the state property tax
- Creating a carbon tax
- Increasing the state business gross receipts tax (B&O).
- Closing existing tax incentives
In past go-rounds on the state budget, several such revenue sources have failed to gain a foothold, and all are strongly opposed by the fiscally conservative State Senate majority coalition.
The Democratic proposal also seeks to revamp the state teacher compensation system, and defines as “basic education” a number of enhancement programs covered by local levies. Some of these are the Learning Assistance Program, Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program, and Special Education.
“Our proposal, we believe, is a great place to have a discussion as we move forward in this session,” said State Rep. Kristine Lytton (D-40).
In contrast, the Republicans’ guiding principles emphasize clarifying what constitutes “enhancement” programs, to make more transparent how local levy money is spent. Another idea raised in their principles is allowing public sector employees a choice on whether to pay union dues, known as “right to work.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 union members made up just 16.8 percent of wage and salary workers in the state.
Along with shifting more state revenue growth toward basic education spending, the Republican principles look to “redeploy resources more efficiently” to pay for McCleary. Both ideas were proposed by gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant during the 2016 gubernatorial race.
Speaking to reporters, Inslee said that he is open to alternatives from Republicans for his tax proposals, but added he won’t support cutting what he considers to be critical government services.
In an email, Inslee’s Deputy Communications Director Tara Lee wrote that “generally, we understand that this is a difficult challenge and that the caucuses among themselves will need to come to consensus internally on this.”
“Obviously, the sooner they can start on this process, the better, but it is the very start of session and we know that we can get this done,” she added.
Some Are Unfazed
Despite the task force impasse, some state officials are nevertheless optimistic. That includes new State Superintendent of Education, Chris Reykdal. A representative speaking on his behalf at the January 9 meeting told task force members that “although there are some that kind of question it…we think you’re going to get there.”
Also unfazed is Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9). He told Lens the task force meeting results were “irrelevant” because “we still have to find 50 (House) and 25 (Senate) votes” to get any proposal to the governor’s desk.
“If it was easy, they (the legislature) would have reached a solution a long time ago,” he said.
From the start, the task force was prone to deadlock due to the split in its voting members, of four Republicans and four Democrats. The state law creating the task force required they submit recommendations on a variety of basic education matters such as teacher compensation. However, the bill contained no penalty or enforcement clause. It also lacked a tie-breaking provision for the non-voting governor’s designee, Executive Director of Policy Matt Steuerwalt.
The legislature has already spent $5 billion more for K-12 since 2012 without new taxes, and state K-12 operating expenditures in the current biennium are $18.2 billion.