OLYMPIA – Republicans in the Washington Senate pushed forward a complex plan Tuesday to revise the way the state pays for public schools and how that money is spent, despite complaints it would result in less money for some students and needs more time for study.
The proposal passed the budget committee on a party-line vote, and could get a vote by the full Senate as early as Wednesday, where the Republican-led coalition would have the one-vote majority needed to pass it if all its members are present.
Sen. Andy Billig, of Spokane, and other Democrats said they had concerns that nearly 600,000 of the state’s 1.4 million public school students would be in districts that would get less money in 2019 than they do under the current law. Spokane Public Schools, for example, would see a $7 million cut, he said.
But Republicans countered that all schools will get more money in 2019 than they will without the proposal, because state law is set to reduce property taxes for school districts throughout Washington and the proposal makes a major change in property tax laws.
Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said Democrats were ignoring an impending drop in property taxes by comparing current budgets to 2019, and their estimates were just “Olympia cuts, on paper.” Compared to the scheduled reductions, all schools would get more money.
“Real dollars are what gets spent to educate a child, not dollars on a spreadsheet,” Fain said.
Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, countered those estimates are “the only paper I have” for a proposal that was announced on Friday and bypassed the Education Committee for a hearing Monday in the budget committee. Normally a bill that proposes major policy changes would get two hearings, one in the committee that oversees those policies, followed by a budget hearing if the first committee approves it.
Republicans said there would be time later to negotiate differences between their plan and those being proposed by Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee.
Earlier in the day, Republicans and Democrats traded barbs on a key element of the GOP plan – the change it would make in the property tax system. The proposal would eliminate the local school districts’ maintenance and operations levies in 2019, replacing them with a statewide levy of $1.80 for every $1,000 of assessed value on the property.
Senate Republicans described it as a way of simplifying property taxes for schools, with a single statewide rate replacing rates that vary widely among Washington’s 295 school districts.
“It’s the biggest progressive tax change we’ve seen in a long time,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman John Braun, R-Centralia said, noting that Democrats have been pushing for the state’s taxes to be more progressive for years. “It’s not unfair, it’s a flat rate around the state.”
But the change would mean property owners in some school districts would pay more taxes while those in others would pay less, and some school districts would get less money under the new GOP student formulas and others more.
“It creates a system of winners and losers,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
Democrats estimate taxpayers in the Spokane, West Valley and East Valley school districts would see their taxes drop, but those districts would get less money per student than they currently receive. Central Valley, Deer Park and Mead school districts would see taxes drop, and the amount of money per student rise.
Some districts would be double losers, Democrats said, with higher property taxes and less money per student. Most of those are around the Puget Sound, including Seattle, Bellevue and Mercer Island, although some Eastern Washington districts, including Dayton, Inchelium and Republic also fall into that category based on those estimates.