Fully funding education, passing capital budget top focus this legislative session

Eastside legislators met to discuss issues at annual breakfast

No, the Washington state Legislature has not fully funded education.

Yes, it will be the focus of yet another legislative session since the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of McCleary in the 2012 McCleary v. Washington lawsuit.

Several Eastside legislators discussed how to fund the mandate at the annual East King County Chambers of Commerce Legislative Coalition breakfast held at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency on Jan. 4.

Members of the Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Snoqualmie Valley, Woodinville, Bothell, Maple Valley/Black Diamond and Redmond chambers of commerce attended the breakfast, joining approximately 15 legislators from as far north as the 1st Legislative District to as far south as the 31st District.

Due to a shorter 60-day legislative session this year, many legislators said the focus would be on passing a state capital budget and figuring out how to fulfill the education funding shortfall. Last session, the Legislature removed the cap on property tax collection, essentially raising property taxes to fund parts of basic education, however, they didn’t take into account the funding for higher salaries for teachers and staff in the 2019 school year.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed dipping into the state’s budget reserves and passing a carbon tax to fill the $915 million shortfall, however, some legislators have differing ideas.

Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-District 31) said he doesn’t think there’s the political will to pass a carbon emissions tax.

“You mentioned it’s been a non-starter for Republicans,” Stokesbary said to Master of Ceremonies Robert Mak at the breakfast. “A lot of us are really concerned about the impact to jobs, especially in rural areas, which are predominantly represented by Republicans now.”

Stokesbary said those living in rural areas would feel the economic brunt of a carbon tax because there tends to be more manufacturing jobs, such as aluminum smelters, that produce higher carbon emissions and pollution in those areas.

Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-District 41) said she has not been a huge supporter of carbon tax in the past because she didn’t understand all of the impacts it would have, including the impacts to the cost of fuel.

“However, the world is changing before our eyes and I think there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Clibborn said. “And, so rather than saying I’m for it or against it, I have made a pledge to [Rep.] Joe Fitzgibbon [(D-District 34)], who is working on an idea that I would like and I’m going to remain open because I do think there are ways to move forward.”

Instead of broad, sweeping, high impact ideas, Clibborn said she’d like to see legislation that has “incremental” effect.

Rep. Joan McBride (D-District 48) doesn’t see why the Legislature can’t do both.

“There is nothing wrong with something that raises an amount of revenue but also helps reduce emissions and helps with issues around climate change,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing. That’s aspirational. That’s government at its best.”

In order for it to work, McBride said there has to be buy-in from stakeholders, and lawmakers have to look at the economics in terms of not putting the state at a disadvantage when it comes to trade. But whether a bill such as this will pass the Legislature this session is a different story, she said.

Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-District 1) said he has faith a version of a carbon tax will pass the Senate but does foresee challenges in the House.

“From my perspective, a moderate, comparable, bipartisan compromise on emission reduction is the way to go for our state,” he said. “The polling shows 74 percent of people in the state want to do something on climate. The question is, ‘What?’”

Lawmakers said other education funding options, such as a capital gains tax and a public infrastructure bank, could work but likely didn’t have time to become law in the shorter session. And Rep. Larry Springer (D-District 45) said a graduated real estate excise tax “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” because it doesn’t recognize a person’s earnings in relation to where they own a home.

But Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-District 41) was quick to remind everyone the property tax hike passed last summer had a four-to-five year shelf life. So, legislators should be keen on figuring out a more sustainable option.

“We’re going to be having these same discussions about underfunding and where we are not fully funding education,” Wellman said. “One of the things we should realize, and we are the state of Washington and I think we think of ourselves in a particular way, the average state in the United States spends 36 percent of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on education. We spend 31 percent with all of the money we’ve put into education.”

And, even under the property tax hike, Rep. Tana Senn (D-District 41) said school districts are still left paying for special education, a big concern for the Bellevue School District.

But Sen. Mark Mullet (D-District 5) said “one of the nice things that came out of the solution” was ruling on what teachers and staff can bargain at the local level.

“So I think the heart of the McCleary deal, [collective bargaining] was addressed so we don’t have to have it revert to statewide bargaining because we feel that set out a lot of clear parameters at what you should be bargaining at the local level,” he said. “And people have to realize, I mean for Issaquah teachers – my wife’s a teacher there – they’re finally being paid.”

Mullet said teachers were underpaid when he was first elected in 2012 but, for the first time, he believes the state is paying a fair wage.

“For a lot of these people in the education profession, I think we’re to that point where we really have to start hyping up to the people who are in school and say, ‘Hey, this is a great career here and in the last six years in the state of Washington, we’ve turned a career that wasn’t paid well into something you can make a reasonable living and have good quality of life and a lot of huge job satisfaction,’” he said.

Within the Issaquah School District, an annual base salary for an entry level teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $36,582, however, that pay increases substantially through trainings, additional responsibility contracts and more to the potential total salary of $50,637, according to the school district. An entry level teacher with a master’s degree has the potential to make $60,085.

Rep. Roger Goodman (D-District 45) said the Legislature should not forget about “workforce readiness institutions,” such as Lake Washington Institute of Technology, Bellevue College and Cascadia College, and what those schools need.

Senn pointed out passing a capital budget would provide funding to many projects within community and state colleges. In addition, the capital budget would allow the state to start a grant program for schools in need of Career and Technical Education (CTE) equipment. Some examples for use of this funding is Bellevue School District’s need for automotive equipment and Issaquah’s request for a synthetic cadaver.

However, until the Legislature can figure out the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, an issue affecting all unincorporated properties’ water rights throughout the state, the capital budget will remain in limbo. And the longer the capital budget isn’t passed, the greater the impact.

“If we don’t get this passed by the second week in January, we will lose the helping trust fund ability to fund things this entire cycle,” McBride said. “This is a big deal. We have already lost 300 full-time jobs in the state of Washington. Construction has stopped, except for transportation construction. It is a big deal, we need to do this, this is our job. We’ve gotta get it done.”

For more information about the Washington state Legislature’s legislative session, which began Monday, visit leg.wa.gov.

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