Legislators agree: Basic education to dominate 2017 session


Gov. Jay Inslee presents his budget priorities to lawmakers and the media.

Inslee lays out budget plan, priorities

OLYMPIA — Along with his education-funding proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday also spoke about his decision of a temporary suspension of the death penalty, his stance against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, his opioid-epidemic initiative, higher wages for state employees and reformed mental health treatment.

“The question is whether the state of Washington in the name of the State of Washington will execute its citizens based on a system that is grossly inequitable, extremely expensive, and does not deter crime,” he said.

The death penalty would be replaced with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. He hopes the legislature will act on abolishing the death penalty during this session.

In other remarks, Inslee said 700,000 Washingtonians would lose insurance coverage if the Affordable Care Act were revoked without a replacement plan.

His proposed budget also includes funds for raising the wage for state employees. He hopes increasing pay will lead to higher employee retention. Also included in his budget are finances to reform and expand mental health treatment.

“I have proposed a new way to reform how we provide mental health care,” said Inslee. “I am confident it will be much more effective.”

— Finding the dollars to meet the Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund basic education as required by the state constitution is the dominant issue facing legislators in the 2017 session.

A major amount of education funding is now raised through local tax levies.

The state is obligated to take over its constitutional share of funding basic education, and thus reducing that burden on local school districts and their taxpayers

Last February, voters in 131 districts in Washington State approved special property tax levies totaling more than $3 billion to fully fund education for their students.

That figure is about equal to what the state must now find to annually meet its basic-education-funding obligations.

In the 2012 McCleary v. State decision, the Supreme Court ruled the state had failed to provide its share of K-12 education funding as required by the state constitution.

The court mandated the legislature put forth a plan that would fulfill its constitutional duty without relying on local tax dollars.

Since then, the Legislature has slowly tackled the problem. Unsatisfied with the state’s progress toward satisfying the mandate in 2015, the Supreme Court imposed a fine of $100,000 per day until the state comes up with a plan to meets its obligation.

Differences of opinion on addressing the mandate were apparent during a

legislative preview and briefing on Thursday.

Education comprises more than 50 percent of Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed 2017-2019 budget.

He proposes new taxes on carbon emissions, capital gains and business and occupation taxes to fund the final tier of the state’s obligation to meet the mandate.

Democrat and Republican leadership commented on Inslee’s proposal.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, argued education funding could be obtained through local levy reforms, though he didn’t detail just what those would be.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said other government services shouldn’t be cut in order to fund education.

“I still don’t believe that the biggest tax increase in history is absolutely necessary to prevent the sky from falling on our children,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said.

He added Washington voters don’t support the carbon tax, one of Inslee’s tax proposals in his budget, and an issue that had extended debate in the 2016 session

Democratic members of the Education Funding Task Force, which is required to present its basic education-funding plan to legislators this week, expressed frustration with the lack of progress made by Republican members in producing the plan.

The Republicans released a set of guiding principles, which will be used to form their proposal, but Schoesler said that proposal awaits determination by his Senate Majority Coalition Caucus members

Adopted in the 2016 session, SB 6195 created the education task force, which has a primary duty to make recommendations that inform education-funding decisions in the 2017 legislative session.

Eight legislators, including two members of the two largest caucuses, assembled over the past seven months to formulate a plan, which was submitted Monday.

“As of yesterday (Jan 4), the Democrats have a very detailed proposal that we put on the table and we are still waiting for our Republican counterparts to counter with their proposal,” Senator Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island said. “All of this should have been done in November or December.”

Senator Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said there was a delay in getting the research that was needed to form their recommendations. The Republican Education Task Force members want to collaborate with their caucus colleagues before presenting a proposal.

Both House and Senate leaders are confident they can meet the education-funding obligation this session.

“We’ve got an opportunity to finally and fully fund education for our children and there is nothing better, that puts a spring in your step, than an opportunity to do that for kids in the State of Washington,” Inslee said

He added his budget would cut property taxes for 75 percent of homeowners and business owners in the state through the alternative tax measures he’s proposing to meet the education-funding mandate.

Although the B&O tax would be new for services, the rate for thousands of small businesses would be reduced, he said. The proposal would serve to reduce property tax levies local school districts now use to fund basic education programs.


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