While a thousand little things are on the minds of Washington state legislators, one massive subject looms over all others: How are we going to pay for public schools?
State representatives were asked how to tackle that very question At the 2017 Eastside legislator breakfast held in Bellevue on Jan. 5 at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
“There is tremendous pressure to find funding for public schools,” said Robert Mak, journalist and emcee of the event.
As the state finds itself in contempt of the Washington Supreme Court for not fully funding public school education (to the tune of a $100,000 a day fine), legislators are scrambling to find ways to pay for those schools.
Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed three controversial tax hikes for the 2017-2018 biennium: A carbon tax, capital gains tax and a business and occupation tax.
Rep. Paul Graves, the rookie legislator from Fall City representing the 5th Legislative District, said he has heard three sides in looking at solving McCleary. The first is fully funding schools with new revenue, the second is not raising taxes and the third is not wanting school levies to be touched.
“The best form of new revenue is a good economy,” said the sole Republican on the panel. “There is a narrow majority in each house. Neither party has the room for staking out aggressive partisan policies.”
Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) countered that he didn’t see a way of getting out of the fiscal hot spot by cutting other state services.
“There’s not a way to do this without new taxes,” he said. “We can give billions to schools, but we can’t cut programs like free and reduced lunch. It doesn’t matter how good the textbooks are, students won’t learn because they are hungry.”
He called the K-12 strict funding requirements an arbitrary line in the sand that become meaningless when other state departments are cut.
To make up the $3-4 billion shortfall in public school funding, Inslee’s proposals would include a carbon tax, which would increase the price of an average gallon of gas in the state by 22 cents.
Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) said that when the voters shot down Initiative 732 (a proposed carbon tax swap) last November, they had expressed a dislike of the idea.
“It’s not going to be much more popular in this form,” she said of Inslee’s proposal. “I’m not going to rule anything out. I think the key to solving this is to reach across the aisle and at least agree on the goal.”
Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island) agreed, saying that to throw out seemingly unpopular ideas was a mistake. She did provide that the Eastside and greater King County would have to work with the rest of the state.
“What does it take to make the state whole?” she asked.
Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) reminded those in attendance that Washington needs 7,000 new classrooms to meet the needs of the state’s students, and the funding has to come from somewhere.
And as representatives of the Eastside, the fact that their constituents tend to be more affluent did not escape acknowledgement. A levy swap was swiftly shot down by the legislators.
“It’s going to be difficult for this area. Most of the revenue is going to come from the residents of this area,” Senn said. “But we need to provide the same education in, say, Omak that we do right here in Bellevue. Taking school levy funds and giving them to the rest of the state could lead to all the schools being mediocre instead of great.”
Graves agreed that levy swaps were a hard sell, but reminded his colleagues that a carbon tax was a nonstarter for Republicans.
“The fact that it failed by 65 percent on the state level means it is not a ‘go’ for our caucus,” he said. “And I know it’s not a ‘go’ for the Republican caucus.”
Despite the disagreements on where the money would come from, the consensus from all the representatives on stage was that the Eastside’s strength was civility in politics.
“We are the most bipartisan region of the state,” Springer said. “We get to know each other. It’s hard to be angry at (Graves) when we disagree if I know him personally.”
Cyrus Habib, former state representative and newly-elected lieutenant governor, reassured the business leaders of the East King County Chambers of Commerce that under his gavel in Olympia, he would brook no shenanigans. He wanted efficient, civil discourse.
“In Washington we like our Seahawk postseasons long and our legislative sessions short,” he said. “President(-elect) Trump tweeted the other day calling Senator Chuck Schumer a clown. No one is going to call anyone a clown in the Senate over which I preside.”
Habib continued, hoping to work with small businesses and programs like the Global Innovation Exchange to keep the economy booming and secure jobs for veterans and Washingtonians with disabilities.
But before those things can come to pass, Springer reminded legislators that funding of education includes post-high school.
“The education to keep your businesses thriving does not end in 12th grade,” he said. “There needs to be post-high school education opportunities. It doesn’t have to be a (bachelor of arts). It would be an (associate of arts) or a technical degree, but the opportunities have to be there.”
Mak pressed the legislators on taxation and Washington’s highest-in-the-nation regressive tax rate.
Graves said some representatives in red counties think a little differently than he does.
“One thing that seems to unite the Republican caucus is a dislike of Seattle,” he said. “I don’t think we can be antagonistic to the number one most populous area and the number one revenue generator in the state.”
Springer said that when it comes to taxation for teacher salaries, he was in favor of state bargaining and additional bargaining as “enhancements” on a local level. In this way, school districts from Forks to Clarkston would not be hamstrung by more affluent or politically powerful school districts.
“The state should pick up the majority of the tab,” he said. “But if a school district wants to add an extra period, that should be bargained locally.”
And when Mak turned to tolling highways on the Eastside, it was the Mercer Islanders in the spotlight.
“The tolling (on Interstate 405) was not rolled out well,” Clibborn said. “But we should see the opening of shoulder lanes for traffic near Bothell very soon.”
With I-90 and construction on Sound Transit’s EastLink extension, the Islanders again were at the forefront.
“There’s a lot of questions,” Senn said. “We could build a new tunnel, or close one. But then traffic would be heading through Mercer Island’s downtown. There are lots of negotiations with Sound Transit but we will see continued growing pains.”
As the presentation wrapped up, Goodman chided past legislatures for taking too long to work on budgets.
“We shouldn’t wait until April to talk about the budget,” he said. “We should be doing that right now.”
But despite Mak’s insistence, the legislators agreed it was unlikely the state would conclude budget talks before Mariners’ opening day.