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WA Lege Day 44: Senate Dems offer education tax package

OLYMPIA -- A day after some of their members showed support for a no new taxes budget "update" with few changes to existing state spending plans, Senate Democrats unveiled a more ambitious, and politically difficult -- proposal to end four tax breaks and raise $100 million for schools.

Their hope: in the 16 days left in the session -- or some time before an April 30 deadline to tell the state Supreme Court how the Legislature plans to improve state schools -- they can get both houses to settle on this plan or something close to it. They'd give teachers a cost-of-living raise, give schools more money for books, labs and heating bills, speed up the move to all-day kindergarten and shrink the size of Second Grade classes in high poverty areas. . . 

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To pay for that, they propose closing four tax preferences, which they call loopholes:
--an extracted fuel exemption for refineries
--the automatic exemption to the state sales tax some out-of-state shoppers get, turning it instead to a refund program the shopper would have to request
--collecting sales tax on bottled water, which is currently exempt as a food product
--eliminating a preferential rate the prescription drug retailers receive to the business and occupation tax.

The tax changes and the additions to public education programs are separate from the supplemental budget released by a bipartisan group Monday and set for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee this afternoon. 

They are, however, among proposals in the House, which is scheduled to release its supplemental budget proposal at noon Wednesday, and hold a hearing on that spending plan the same evening.

To have a chance, the Senate Democrats package would need 25 votes, which means they'd need support from the predominantly Republican coalition that controls that chamber to get it to the floor, and to pass it by March 13. Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said yesterday that major changes on school funding might have to wait until next year.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, raised the prospect of discussing the tax changes and the extra money for schools in a special session. "If we have to stay past March 13, it's worth it," she said.

But the Legislature is facing another deadline besides the end to its 60-day short session. The state Supreme Court has ordered a plan from legislators on how they plan to meet their constitutional mandate to make public education the state's "paramount duty" by April 30. "We cannot wait until the next session to implement this plan," Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, 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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