Legislative leaders agree: Basic education funding to dominate 2017 Session

OLYMPIA — 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 teat burden on local school districts and their taxpayers

Last February, voters in 131 districts in Washington state approved special property tax levies totaling over $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 obligations for funding basic education.

In the 2012 McCleary v. State decision, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed to provide its share of K-12 education funding as required by the state constitution. The court mandated that 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 Washington Supreme Court imposed a fine of $100,000 per day until the state comes up with a plan to meets its obligation.

During a legislative preview and briefing Jan. 5 — an annual event hosted by the Associated Press in Olympia where journalists, politicians, and staff come together to discuss the most pertinent issues of the upcoming session — differences of opinion were apparent amongst Democrats and Republicans regarding the education funding mandate.

Education comprises over 50 percent of Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed 2017-2019 budget, which 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 Supreme Court mandate.

Reactions from Democrat and Republican leadership have varied 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, while 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 that 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.

Democrat 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 on the first day of this session, Jan. 9.

“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,” said Senator Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “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,” Gov. Inslee said to the assembled news media.

He added that his budget would cut property taxes for 75 percent of homeowners and business owners in Washington 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.

Grace Swanson is a reporter in the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.

This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter Grace Swanson at grace.swanson47@gmail.com.

Legislative leaders agree: Basic education funding to dominate 2017 Session