Senate GOP Releases Budget With More Education Money

By Rachel La Corte, Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) – Senate Republicans on Tuesday released a $43 billion two-year budget that puts an additional $1.8 billion toward education, paid for, in part, by a statewide property tax that ultimately would replace local district levies.

The budget plan – which spends about $5 billion more than the current two-year budget – also relies on about $200 million in transfers from other accounts and spending cuts in some state programs. The plan was to move quickly to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which was to hold a public hearing Tuesday, and the full chamber could vote on it as early as Thursday.

House Democrats are set to release their budget plan next week, and then both sides will need to negotiate a final budget, something they hope they can do before the current 105-day legislative session ends on April 23. If they don’t, they will need to go into overtime special sessions to resolve their differences.

“We’ve delivered a budget that’s balanced, that’s ready to go,” said Republican Sen. John Braun, the chamber’s key budget writer. “There are people who won’t like every part of it, but we tried to be thoughtful about what we put in and what we didn’t. The most important thing is we made sure we can pay the bill.”

One of the issues the Legislature is dealing with this year is resolving the reliance on local levies to pay for teacher and school staff salaries. Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system. The state Supreme Court has said that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018 to fully fund education, but that the details of how to do that – as well as how lawmakers will pay for it – must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with the local property-tax levies.

Under the Senate measure, the new statewide property tax rate would be transitioned in starting next year, but would not be fully implemented until Jan. 1, 2019.

The plan would raise the local school levy in some places, like Seattle, and decrease it in others, though the plan released Tuesday has a lower tax rate of $1.55 per $1,000 of assessed value than $1.80 Republicans originally proposed. Braun said that 83 percent of taxpayers would have lower property tax rates under the plan.

Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker said while he appreciated the investments the Republican plan made in mental health and education, the property tax plan creates winners and losers among taxpayers.

“We can’t have a property tax system that dramatically increases property taxes in one area, decreases them in another,” he said.

The GOP plan also increases the minimum beginning salary for teachers to $45,000 from $35,700, and creates a new housing allowance of up to $10,000 for teachers and staff in high cost of living areas. The plan also prohibits teacher strikes.

The Senate budget puts additional money into mental health, including the creation of six new crisis walk-in centers, and higher education, with the intent of increasing the number of slots available for new students at the state’s four-year institutions. But it rejects collective bargaining agreements with state employees that would have cost the state about $500 million over the next two years. Instead, the budget proposes funding for a $500 raise for all state agency employees, including those in higher education, starting July 1, and another $500 raise on July 1, 2018. That change would cost the state about $90 million over the next two years.

Other collective bargaining agreements with the Teamsters Local 117 corrections employers and with state patrol officers are fully funded as negotiated with the governor’s office, at a cost of about $79 million over the next two years.

The plan fully funds health benefits for state employees as previously negotiated, at a cost of $18 million over the next two years.

Braun said the collective bargaining process lacks transparency and is historically expensive.

Cuts to state programs include more than $56 million to a program that provides housing-related assistance to people unable to work. Braun noted that they created a new family homeless assistance program to focus on families who were previously served by the program, and he said the elimination of funding to the original program would affect about 3,000 people who are considered able to work. Savings also include $96 million from the temporary assistance for needy families program, with an expectation that at least $63 million will be saved by using federal funds.

In December, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee proposed spending $2.7 billion over the next two years to satisfy the court decision. Inslee would raise money for education by increasing business taxes on attorneys, real estate agents and others, instituting a carbon tax and levying a 7.9 percent capital gains tax on the sales of stocks and bonds above a certain threshold. Democrats, who are expected to release their revenue package on Monday, have not yet said what taxes they will propose.

 

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.

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