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Opinion

SUNDAY, FEB. 5, 2017

Education funding talks can finally begin

Now that Senate Republicans have produced a plan to resolve the most contentious aspects of basic education funding, it means that bargaining can begin. Legislative Democrats and the governor had already laid down their markers.

It also looks like the Supreme Court can fade into the background, because its concerns have been addressed by all three sides. That’s a relief, because there were times when it looked as if Republicans were spoiling for a showdown.

Instead, they’ve produced a bold plan that is actually more detailed than the Democrats’. The headline is a restructuring of the state property tax that provides a clear funding source for paying teachers and school staff. That was a chief concern of the McCleary ruling, which noted the wide variations among school districts based on their success in passing local levies.

More equitable funding is a feature of all three plans, but the Republican version will mean tax increases in some districts and tax cuts in others. Whether you like the plan may be a simple matter of where you live. What’s interesting is that the Republican plan redistributes revenue from property rich districts, especially on the West Side, to property poor ones. They even call it “progressive,” a term usually uttered by Democrats.

Gov. Jay Inslee takes issue with that characterization, saying a rich person in Yakima gets a tax cut at the expense of a middle-class worker or retiree in Seattle.

The Republican plan removes local levy authority in 2019 and imposes a state property tax rate of $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed value. That’s higher than the current rate in high property value districts, such as Bellevue and Mercer Island. So those homeowners would face a tax increase. Lower property value districts, such as Spokane’s and much of Eastern Washington would come out ahead.

On teacher pay, Senate Republicans raise beginning salaries from about $35,000 to $45,000, about the same as legislative Democrats. The GOP adds a sensible allowance for teachers in districts with high housing costs. Inslee pushes starting past $54,000, which seems overly ambitious.

The governor’s plan is the most expensive, at $2.75 billion over the next biennium, and his tax package (carbon, capital gains, B&O change and ending exemptions) will be a tough sell. Democrats haven’t settled on their funding, but they want new revenue to ensure that other parts of the state budget don’t get hit.

Legislative Republicans and Democrats need about $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion to finance their plans. Republicans say they can cover the costs with existing revenue. If that means cuts elsewhere in the state budget, then it’s important to know what those will be. Finding more than $1 billion in cuts won’t be easy.

We do like that Republicans would repeal the class-size initiative, which has proven to be impractical and unwise to fully fund. We don’t like the idea of sending the ultimate solution to the voters. A failed referendum would return the Legislature to square one, and the court’s deadline would be missed. Plus, the issue is far too complicated to be placed on the ballot. Just try reading one of these plans without background knowledge of the many moving parts.

But these are precisely the types of details that can be negotiated. The good news is that with three plans on the table, those talks can begin in earnest.

Finally.



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