With the state House and Senate clearing two rival bills to fully fund basic education, eyes are turned toward a third alternative proposal set for a Monday, February 27 public hearing of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. SB 5825 would lock in local school district levies at their existing rates, while increasing levy equalization money sent to less affluent districts. Proponents say the bill could act as a catalyst to reconcile the separate visions House Democrats and the Senate Majority Coalition have for complying with the State Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling.
SB 5825’s primary sponsor is State Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5). Cosponsors are State Sens. Dean Takko (D-19) and Steve Hobbs (D-44).
Staking The Middle Ground On Education Funding
In a statement, Mullet described his plan as a middle ground between the other McCleary solutions. “At the start of negotiations, it’s important to get all ideas on the table. I’m confident that my proposal will encourage other moderates in the Legislature to join the discussion about how we go about funding our K-12 system.”
Takko told Lens that the bill is “sort of a compromise in-between” that doesn’t suffer from the same funding challenges.
“You see the other two (bills) are…diametrically opposed ideas,” he said. “They’re both having same troubles” paying for themselves.
The bill contains similar provisions to the Senate Republican proposal. It replaces the state’s prototypical funding model with a baseline per-pupil spending, which would be calculated by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) using certain criteria. Districts would be required to submit a report to OSPI before placing any new levy measures on the ballot to ensure the money is only spent on supplemental programs.
It takes a nuanced approach to McCleary by locking in local levies at their current rates in order to make them a reliable source of revenue. The State Supreme Court ruled in their 2012 decision that local levies could not be used to fund basic education because the rates are voted on every four years. The monies would be sent to the state and then distributed back to districts.
The bill would add $1.5 billion in additional spending every biennium by increasing levy equalization funding to eliminate inequity between districts with higher and lower property values. SB 5825’s backers have introduced two bills, SB 5855 and SB 5856, both of which for a Internet sales tax to cover the new spending.
The tax would be “pretty palatable” for state businesses, particularly compared to other potential new revenue sources, said Takko.
Lowering New K-12 Spending Costs
The bill’s lower costs might appeal to Senate fiscal hawks after a new report revealed a higher price tag for SB 5607 than previously thought. Assuming the repeal of I-1351 provisions not already enacted by the legislature, the bill would increase state spending by $4.4 billion over the next four years. Cost estimates for HB 1843 during that same timeframe is $7.5 billion, though a funding mechanism has yet to be introduced. A fiscal note for SB 5825 has not been completed.
Continuing Debate Over Local Levy Rates
Ways and Means Chair Sen. John Braun (R-20) told Lens that he favors SB 5825’s levy reform provisions, but is opposed to locking in existing levy rates despite the new levy equalization funding. He says it would still perpetuate inequity among district tax burdens and also not survive a constitutional challenge.
“I certainly appreciate his (Mullet) willingness to not just follow the party line and try to solve some of the same problems,” he said. However, he added that “you need a uniform (levy) rate around the state. The question is, what should that rate be?”
The House passed HB 1843 Wednesday, February 22 by a 50-47 vote. Prior to its passage, legislators added an amendment allowing schools to receive funding related to the I-1351 classroom size reduction measure if they cannot fully comply due to facility constraints. Senate Republican’s SB 5607 was passed February 1 by the Senate on a 25-24 vote, but has yet to advance after a February 6 public hearing of House Appropriations Committee.
The House floor debate over HB 1843 highlighted key areas of disagreement and potential compromise for a final k-12 education package. Assistant Minority Floor Leader State Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13) proposed an amendment, which was ultimately not adopted, imposing audits on district local levy spending and financial penalties if that money is spent on basic education.
“This amendment addresses the major mistake that got us here, and the major mistake that we can never ever commit again,” he said.
He added that although HB 1843 “acknowledges that this is a problem…. there is a difference between saying ‘Tell us if you’re breaking the law’ and us telling them to not break the law.”
While opposed to the amendment, HB 1843 chief sponsor and House Majority Leader State Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-45) said many of the ideas in it “make sense.”
“As we move through this process…we will find a pathway to ensure that we are not back here for a McCleary 2 type of decision in our lifetime,” he added. “None of us want to be here having this debate again anytime in the near future.”
Manweller: Lawmakers Must Take Tough Votes Ahead
Another amendment not adopted would have reduced the local levy lid to 10 percent from the 24 percent lid scheduled for 2018 and ultimately maintained under HB 1843. The levy lid rate is one area that could figure largely in negotiations.
State Rep. Kristine Lytton (D-40) said that the “amount that we come to in local control and what percent that would be, is to be determined in the future. Whether it’s zero percent or whatever that cap we put on it, we embrace local control in this state, and if communities want to have zero percent (maintenance and operations) levy, they can do that. If they want to have more, that’s up to them, too.”
Manweller said, “this is going to be a difficult session. We are all going to have to take some tough votes, and we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions. And we’re going to have to communicate that to our voters, and when we do, we better deliver on what we promise.”