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Wed., Feb. 26, 2014

Editorial: Washington Senate Republican coalition budget dodges challenges

The budget released Monday by the Republican-controlled majority coalition in the Washington Senate deserves an un-A, for un-ambitious.

Taking the very modest revenue increases forecast two weeks ago, the plan expected to reach the Senate floor Thursday would add $96 million in spending to the $33.6 billion set aside for the current two-year budget. Most of the new money would be dedicated to youth-related expenditures, notably K-12 education, $38 million; child care, $25 million; and child mental health, $7 million.

Scholarships for students pursuing degrees in science, technology or math would get a $25 million infusion; financial aid for service members and the children of undocumented immigrants – the Real Hope Act – another $5 million.

Teachers, for the fifth year in a row, will not get a pay hike.

An alternative budget from minority Democrats would reward that dependable constituency with a 1 percent pay bump, and cover the $74 million cost by eliminating four tax breaks worth about $100 million.

Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats are equally anxious to reward educators.

But Senate Democrats did their duty by teachers last week by helping sink a change in their evaluations that puts $44 million at risk unless the U.S. Department of Education grants the state another year of grace. Revisiting that error – and Republicans share the blame – would protect the Washington urban school districts that will suffer most if the evaluation problem is not resolved.

The House Democrats can push for higher spending, but the Republicans don’t have to push back. With so little money in play compared with the total biennial budget, the only motivation they have to act at all is the McCleary decision, and the state Supreme Court’s insistence the Legislature comply with that 2012 ruling.

Fully funding K-12 education, as the state constitution requires, may ultimately add $5 billion a year to spending. The justices want to see a plan by April 30 that will show them how the lawmakers and governor intend to get there. None of the budgets on the table so far – the House Democrats will release theirs later this week – is likely to satisfy the court that there is much enthusiasm for making the necessary spending and tax decisions.

The same unwillingness between Democrats and Republicans to address reform and taxation has also paralyzed progress on a much-needed transportation package.

The coalition’s supplemental budget proposal may or may not convince the Supreme Court that lawmakers are serious about meeting their constitutional obligation to fully fund schools. But, as far as it goes, it makes the right choices: The state’s children are the primary beneficiaries, and the one major tax incentive the plan preserves – for research and development – is needed.

The problem with unambition is this: Washington’s challenges go unresolved for another year.

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