OLYMPIA – House Republicans, who say they are fed up with the slow pace of budgeting process in a session where that was supposed to be the main thing the Legislature tackled, argued Thursday for a new approach.
The state should set aside what it wants to spend on K-12 education first, then figure out what’s left for other state programs. They call it "Fund Education First" and say it’s in line with both the state Constitution’s declaration that education in the state's public schools is the state’s "paramount duty" and a recent state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature must do more to meet that duty.
"This is not a gimmick. It’s a workable solution," said Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would make that change in budgeting.
The bill had a hearing Wednesday and House Republicans produced an education budget Thursday.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, however, said they produced only a partial document.
"What is required to make this work? We don’t know. Where does the money come from? We don’t know," Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said, adding that education is the paramount duty, but not the state’s only constitutional duty. "Are all those being met? We don’t know."
But the House Republicans spending plan can be compared with the one Gov. Chris Gregoire sent the Legislature in November. They would cut about $46 million from public school programs, compared to some $630 million in cuts proposed by Gregoire. Among the biggest differences: They wouldn’t shorten the 2012-13 school year by four days or reduce state money to school districts known as levy equalization.
Gregoire wants the Legislature to cut those programs and some others, then ask voters to approve a temporary sales tax increase to "buy back" nearly $500 million of the cuts.
"We won’t hold education hostage to tax increases," said Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia, the top Republican on the budget committee. After deciding what to spend on education, which consumes about 45 percent of the General Fund, the Legislature would establish priorities in other areas, such as public safety and programs that help "the most vulnerable". It would pay for those programs until that remaining 55 percent is spoken for.
That would be a more transparent way to create a budget, and to determine if the state is meeting its paramount duty, Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said.
Republicans didn’t release their plans for the remaining 55 percent. They might in a few weeks, Alexander said, if budget negotiations between him and Hunter break down.
The House Republicans weren’t the only ones complaining about the pace of the budget Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said in a press release that despite Gregoire’s request that legislators pass a budget early, there’s no apparent sense of urgency by Democrats. A Senate budget proposal won’t be out until mid February, when the 60-day session is more than half over.
"The lack of urgency on the most important issue before us is alarming," Hewitt said.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said a final budget plan is waiting for the Feb. 16 revenue forecast, which could tell the state it has a couple hundred million dollars less – or a couple million dollars more – than the previous forecast. Even with that forecast, Democrats seem unlikely to accept an "education first" approach. But many agree with Republicans on one key point: They don’t want to cut education programs, then ask voters for a tax increase to buy them back.
"In light of the (Supreme Court) decision, education’s not what you want to put on the ballot," Brown said. "The state needs to fund education, higher education, pre-kindergarten, public safety, natural resources, courts…there’s a broad spectrum of things that aren’t going away."