Gov. Chris Gregoire’s emergency budget lays out an all-cuts menu with the option of buying back some reductions if the voters agree to a half-cent sales tax increase that would expire in 2015. The tax would raise an estimated $494 million in fiscal 2013, and the governor would like to offer it as a voter referendum in March.
But the timing is worrisome for school districts that have already planned to ask voters to pay more to offset presumed state cuts in levy equalization funds. Spokane-area districts want to approach voters in February for three-year replacement levies for 2013-’15. Asking voters to increase their burden in consecutive months could kill both measures. The levies comprise about 25 percent of district budgets.
State levy equalization is on the chopping block because it is outside the definition of “basic education,” which means it is not constitutionally protected. Because much of K-12 education spending is off-limits, the state must look elsewhere for savings. And, as usual, higher education carries a huge “kick me” sign.
The constant decline in state support for higher education belies the increased importance of a diploma. The state cannot meet the challenges of today’s economy with its 1980s level of funding. It wasn’t that long ago that the state covered two-thirds of the cost of attending public institutions. Now, it’s closer to one-third. This shift has become an enormous tax on families struggling to make up the difference.
One cost-saver in the governor’s plan is to reduce the K-12 year by four days and extend each school day by 10 minutes to maintain the mandated 1,000 hours of classroom time. The savings would be an estimated $99 million, and it’s one of the cuts the governor would restore if the sales tax were to pass.
However, it would be wiser to go ahead with the shorter school year regardless in order to remove the unconscionable target placed on developmental disability services and other programs that aid our most vulnerable citizens. Some or all of the remainder could be funneled to higher education. Absent any relief, public universities and students would absorb another $160 million in cuts under the governor’s budget, which would once again damage the state’s reputation in the eyes of current and prospective employers.
Voters didn’t help matters in passing Initiative 1163, which will force the state to spend $15 million on training for home health care workers at the same time it’s whacking far more important items.
Legislators face ugly decisions that must be made in relative haste. However, in doing so, lawmakers must also be mindful of the long-term structural issues that will haunt them even after the economy recovers. Generous employee benefits are unsustainable; it’s time they match the contributions made in the private sector. The merger of school districts must be considered to pare education costs. Natural resource agencies need to accept the kind of consolidation that has saved money elsewhere in state government.
No matter how the budget is sliced, it will be difficult to swallow. But thoughtful choices can mitigate the harm.
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