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McKenna: Limit other spending to boost education

Washington could spend more money on its public schools and colleges by limiting the growth in other state expenses and changing the way some property taxes are collected, a gubernatorial candidate said Tuesday.

Republican hopeful Rob McKenna released new details of his plans to increase spending on education, with an extra $1.25 billion for public schools and $437 million for colleges in the first two years of his tenure.

After McKenna discussed the details in a pair of one-hour meetings with reporters, a spokeswoman for Jay Inslee, his chief Democratic rival, called it "empty promises." The plan won't generate the revenue he expects, Jaime Smith said in a press release.

The state is under a Supreme Court mandate . . .

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. . . to spend more on public schools to meet its constitutional obligations to fully fund basic education. Along with the increase spending to meet that mandate, McKenna is proposing to reduce the number of students in kindergarten through Grade 3 classes from 25 students to 17, and shift kindergarten from a half to a full day.

Neither McKenna nor Inslee, who also talks about spending more on education, are calling for a tax increase to pay for their improvements. Gov. Chris Gregoire has said that's not realistic and contends the state will need to raise taxes to make improvements that satisfy the Supreme Court.

To pay for changes without tax increases, McKenna called for limiting the growth in other state programs to 6 percent, which he said would allow only for inflation and population growth. He’d look for ways to cut state spending on health care costs, by shifting state employees to "cost-conscious" health care plans and getting more Medicaid patients into managed care, and cut the number of state employees through attrition.

That would allow the state to spend more of the projected growth in state revenue, from a strengthening economy, to schools and colleges, he said.

He’d also rearrange the way the state and local school districts collect property taxes. Right now, property owners pay a "common school levy" set by the Legislature that is not subject to voter approval, and a local school district levy which voters must approve. As state funding has declined, many districts have used their levy money for "basic education" expenses the court said are state responsibilities.

Under McKenna’s plan, the state would increase its levy and the local districts would lower theirs by a like amount. The state would send the extra money it collects to the school districts, which would use the money for the same school expenses as before but the money would be more stable, a quality the Supreme Court said current education funding lacks. Property owners would pay the same amount of taxes, at least initially.

McKenna has talked about spending more on education since the beginning of his campaign and insisted he would do it without a tax increase. Tuesday he provided the outline for accomplishing that, complete with a spreadsheet that calculated growth over the next eight years that amounted to $3.7 billion for public schools and more than $1 billion for colleges and universities in the 2019-21 biennium.

He didn’t propose specific cuts to any department or agency, but said the state would have "a whole basket of tools" to limit growth in non-education programs while putting more money into schools and colleges.

"This is a policy document," he said.

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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