Latest from The Spokesman-Review
OLYMPIA – With the end of the legislative session on the horizon, Democrats and Republicans unveiled different plans Wednesday to pump more state money into public schools, something the state Supreme Court has said they must do.
Senate Democrats proposed a capital gains tax on the state's wealthiest residents, those who earn more than $250,000 per year on their investments. It would raise an estimated $1.3 billion and provide the money for the state to take over a responsibility it has been shirking for years, paying the basic salaries of teachers and other school personnel.
“We’re trying to put something on the table,” Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said. “This is a doable plan.”
Senate Republicans unveiled a different bill with a similar goal in mind. They want to rearrange the property tax levy system, lowering the amount local school districts collect and raising the amount the state charges for its levy. The average property tax payer wouldn’t see much difference in the annual bill, but the extra money the state collects would go back to the districts for basic teacher pay as part of a larger plan to equalize those salaries across the state.
That would reverse a trend that goes back decades in which the state covered less of school salaries and local districts picked up the difference, and pay disparities grew between districts, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said. “The state has made the easy decision of having everybody else pay our bills.”
Last year the court found the state in contempt of its order to come up with a plan that satisfies a constitutional requirement that education is the state’s “paramount duty”. It didn’t impose a penalty at that time and gave the Legislature this session to develop that plan.
Both plans are scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee todaycqThursday, but face significant challenges beyond the need to be approved by two chambers controlled by opposing parties in the 10 days left in the regular session.
The Democrats' plan consists of three interconnected bills, with a six-year phase-in of a new system for school salaries, which would be adjusted every four years, as well as a phase-in for more teachers and smaller class sizes required by an initiative voters approved last year. Local school levies would be reduced by the amount the districts get from the state, so more than 98 percent of residents would get a tax break, Hargrove said.
It also requires a new tax, which is never popular with voters. But sponsor Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said it would fall on only about 7,500 people, and the lower limit for investment gains would be set through a constitutional amendment.
“It will never come down without a vote of the people,” said Ranker, and the money would go into a special trust fund that could only be used for basic education expenses. He produced a letter with 100 people who would pay the tax and support it.
Such an amendment requires two-thirds majorities in both houses, and a simple majority of voters in November.
The Republicans' plan would eliminate a law voters approved through initiative, the annual cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and some other school staff. The Legislature would set base salaries and adjust them annually through a different inflation adjustment measurement. Collective bargaining between local school districts and their unions would be limited to working conditions and supplemental pay.
It also involves changes to the state’s complicated levy laws, the levies of its 295 school districts, and the restrictions on the amount a levy can be raised. This plan, too, would phase-in a reduction in local property tax levies as the state property tax levy rises and the state would use the money it collects for teacher salaries.
This would meet a requirement by the Supreme Court that the state reduce its reliance on local levies, Dammeier said. Because the money is already being collected, most taxpayers wouldn’t see an increase in their total bill.
Senate Democrats are basing their plans for paying teachers on a new capital gains tax, which is different from capital gains tax proposals by Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats. Dammeier said he doubted there were votes in the Legislature to pass such a tax through both chambers.
Inslee said Wednesday he had not yet studied the plans, but said he remained optimistic the Legislature would produce a bipartisan budget that satisfies the court’s mandate on schools. To do that, he’s told budget negotiators he still believes the state will need some type of tax increase.
“We can’t do this with gimmicks and hopes,” Inslee said.
OLYMPIA — School administrators, teachers, middle school pupils and college students pleaded with a Senate panel to spare many of the programs on the chopping block in a budget fix proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Some broke down in tears when they described state programs that kept them in school or returned them so they could graduate. One group of technical college students played a YouTube video in an effort to convince legislators that budget cuts now would darken the future for years to come.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn criticized Gregoire's plan to save $99 million in the General Fund by cutting four days from the school year in 2012-13 and another $152 million by rearranging the levy equalization system so that poor school districts get less and more affluent districts could get none at all.
"Cutting four school days is simply not going to help students," Dorn said. "Kids deserve an opportunity to reach their maximum potential."
Students from Renton Technical College played a video they produced called "Don't Cut the Solution" (above) which features those in welding, computer aided design, medical assistants, auto technology and culinary arts holding up signs that said they had been unemployed but can expect to be working, and paying taxes, when they graduate.
The committee's opening hearing on the budget was interrupted for about a half-hour Tuesday by protesters who demanded the committee abandon its rules and abide by their rules for a "general assembly." Several of those protesters were escorted or carried out of the committee room before that hearing could continue.
There were no such interruptions Wednesday. The committee, which has primary budget-writing authority in the Senate, will hold a hearing Thursday afternoon on proposed cuts to state Social Service programs, Health and Long-term Care programs on Monday afternoon, natural resources and general government programs Tuesday afternoon.
Stuff’s moving quickly, so here’s a quick overview of recent developments, etc:
-The polling came back Friday on a proposed third-of-a-cent sales tax hike, and the numbers prompted an on-again, off-again Saturday, with groups and lawmakers weighing whether to press ahead with a public vote on the plan.
“We weren’t sure (the numbers) were strong enough to go forward,” said Cassie Sauer, who’s part of a coalition of health groups (hospitals, nursing homes, a nurses union, SEIU). She wouldn’t give out numbers, although she said that the number of people supporting a tax increase was higher than those opposed. And the numbers were “through the roof” as far as public disapproval of cuts to pediatric health, hospitals, nursing, etc. But many people are clearly very worried about the economy, she said.
So is the health coalition still willing to back a campaign to win public support for the temporary tax increase, which would add $1.1 billion over three years? “We’re thinking about it,” said Sauer.
-The Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier has posted two video clips, less than three weeks apart, in which a) Rep. Eric Pettigrew is praising the House budget as a responsible document and b) he says that the budget will result in people dying.
-David Goldstein, at horsesass.org, reports that momentum for an income tax on high earners is faltering: “`Next year,’ income tax advocates are being told. `Maybe next year.’ Yeah. Right.”
Goldstein argues that if ever there was a moment of opportunity for such a plan, it’s now. Not next year, when most House lawmakers will be running for re-election. Writes Goldstein:
By “next year,” of course, the powers that be mean “some other year,” which really means “never.”
-The Homeowners’ Bill of Rights has apparently died, for the third year in a row.
-With Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Sen. Chris Marr standing in the House wings Friday, there was some high drama Friday night involving SB 5840, which was intended to ease some of the renewable-power rules for power companies, easing the cost to ratepayers. Environmentalists say the bill largely guts Initiative 937, which set those standards.
In a rare alliance, environmentalist House Democrats joined Republicans to pass an amendment that seems likely to kill the bill: declaring all hydropower renewable, which would largely render I-937 meaningless. From the Olympian’s Brad Shannon:
“We put a poison pill in it,” said Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who voted for the amendment and then voted against the final bill.
TVW’s Niki Sullivan adds this: “It might be working: The Senate rejected the House’s amendments yesterday. It now heads to a conference committee.”
-The Seattle Times’ Jennifer Sullivan has an update on a proposal to privatize some child-welfare services. (The short form: it’s now a pilot project instead of the original sweeping reform.)
-Publicola’s Josh Feit has the blow-by-blow in the continuing tussle between education advocates over whether a bill redefining basic education. And here’s a long statement from House education chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe, who calls the struggle over HB 2261 “one of the most difficult and bittersweet weeks in my time in our Legislature.”
-Lawmakers have agreed to defer $430 million in state pension payments.
-Lastly: lawmakers have, in fact, banned novelty lighters (those that could be mistaken for a toy or that have flashing lights) out of concern that they attract children who end up starting fires with them.
Teachers and their union are profoundly underwhelmed by House Bill 2261, which passed the Senate yesterday with much fanfare. Proponents say the bill is a path to the biggest overhaul in school funding in decades — billions of dollars — but Republicans and the Washington Education Association point out the bill includes no money source. Here’s the WEA’s video take on the situation, with a little help from Tom Cruise.
In a bill closely watched by schools advocates, the state Senate plans to vote on — and presumably pass — an amended version of HB 2261 this afternoon.
“We’re working with the governor and members of the House to agree on a bill to responsibly reform and retool our educational system,” Senate education committee chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe said in a statement about the proposal. “It’s critical that these reforms are meaningful and phased in over time to actually achieve and maintain progress. But we cannot disregard our current economic climate, particularly as we make drastic cuts to our schools, colleges and universities and eliminate health care coverage for tens of thousands of people.”
I wrote about some of the political tension around this bill in this morning’s paper. The short version: the state PTA and others are pushing to redefine basic education (which the state must pay for), while the state teacher’s union says the real battle should be trying to stave off a billion in cuts right now.
Here are some highlights from the Senate version of the plan:
-Redefines basic education: increases instructional hours from 1000 to 1080 a year, phased in over years. “Opportunity to complete 24 credits” for high school graduation. New transportation funding formula phased in, beginning in 2013.
-More: definition will include all-day kindergarten, phased in at highest-poverty schools first. Also, money for gifted students. It also starts down the path toward expanding early learning for at-risk kids.
-Prototype school: The amended bill will create a standard “core allocation” to base school funding on, including enhancements for gifted students, advanced placement and spelling out staffing levels in law. It would take effect in 2011.
-Timeline: The new definition of basic ed would be fully in efffect by 2018.
-Accountability: the state board of education would have to set up “a system to identify schools for recognition and additional support.”
-Teacher certification: the state Professional Educator Standards Board would have to “adopt performance standards for effective teaching and recommend other modifications for educator certification.”
And here’s the key part, especially in the eyes of the Washington Education Association:
-“Revenue: Not addressed.”
In tomorrow’s paper:
In an 11th-hour push, education advocates in Olympia are calling on lawmakers and the governor to update the decades-old rule that spells out what the state should pay for in public schools.
“We’ve studied this long enough,” said state school superintendent Randy Dorn.
Dorn, along with members of the state board of education, parent teacher association and League of Education Voters, wants lawmakers to redefine “basic education.” That’s the basic learning that the state is supposed to pay for, with schools left to add extras from their local tax levies.
The definition of basic education hasn’t changed since the 1970s, he and others say. It doesn’t factor in things that have become increasingly important, like technology and school security.
“We are not a Third World country, yet we are not even paying the full cost of taking the bus” to school, said Mary Jean Ryan, chairwoman of the state board of education.
“We’ve been leaning on, leaning on, leaning on local levies,” said Dorn. “They’re maxed out.”
House Bill 2261 would expand the definition of basic education to include things like all-day kindergarten, more early learning programs, raising the high school graduation requirement to 24 credits and adding staffers, including librarians, counselors and nurses.
The changes would almost certainly mean raising more tax dollars. An early version of the proposal came with a price tag of at least $3 billion.
Proponents argue that better education means a stronger economy and fewer social service costs later.
“This is urgent, it’s compelling, and it has to happen now,” said Tacoma parent Cheryl Jones.
Conspicuously absent from Wednesday’s chorus, however, was a major player in state politics: the teachers’ union. In an unusual public split among education advocates, the Washington Education Association has focused instead on trying to stave off major budget cuts.
“We have adults who are pointing to this bill and saying this is something good for kids,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the union. “At the same time, we’re cutting a billion dollars from those kids and the education that they’re getting.”
Instead of more promises of money in the future, he said, lawmakers need to be finding ways
Last year, local young mothers went to bat in Olympia to win more state dollars for school libraries. They proved to be savvy grassroots lobbyists, and succeeded against pretty long odds.
Now, the same group is trying to put some meat on skeletal bills aimed at revamping school funding. After a year of work, a small group of advocates and lawmakers had proposed sweeping changes in how teachers are paid and evaluated and what the state pays for.
But some groups — notably the state teachers’ union — balked at the overhaul. And some lawmakers argue that a recession with a $9 billion state deficit isn’t the time to commit the state to billions of dollars in new spending.
“There is no money now,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said yesterday when asked about the plan. Yes, she said, the state needs to change what it considers basic education (and thus pays for), but she said there’s no sense in doing it now while the state’s still trying to dig its way out of a budget hole.
“I don’t believe you move forward now with putting something on the books when you don’t have any money to pay for it,” she said.
Undeterred, Spokane’s Lisa Layera Brunkan and Susan McBurney have gotten thousands of signatures in an online petition.
“With 2 million parents in the state, we can do this!!!” they wrote in a recent e-mail to supporters.