Minority Republicans in the state House today called for devoting $817 million over the next two years to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to fund K-12 schools.
They released the first spending plan the public has seen since the legislative session began two months ago, combining a detailed budget for K-12 education with only broad sketches of how other obligations would be met — notably, without general tax increases and by taking federal money offered by President Barack Obama’s health-care law to expand Medicaid insurance.
“The affordable health care act is here. It’s already been passed. We already have an exchange in place. Obama’s re-elected. We’re already paying the taxes — our businesses, individuals are paying the taxes into the program,” said lead House Republican budget writer Gary Alexander said. “Then from our standpoint we should do everything we can to maximize benefits to Washington as a result of this and if we take the full expansion then we can divert state dollars to federal dollars to keep these programs going.”
According to projections, Alexander said, the state would gain more than it loses from Medicaid expansion every year for at least the next 15 years.
The money for basic education would go to expanding all-day kindergarten to all school districts; slimming down class sizes by roughly four pupils in kindergarten through third grade; increasing the number of instructional hours in seventh through 12th grades.
The plan leaves other promised spending increases mostly for later years, including covering the cost of school supplies and school buses. Full implementation of their $3.1 billion plan would come in the 2018 school year.
And even the long-term plan leaves out some increases that have been discussed as part of meeting the McCleary decision, including school employees’ pay. Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, Republicans’ leaderon education, said they are sticking to areas the Legislature promised to fund in 2009 and 2010 laws rather than hanging more funding items on the budget “like a Christmas tree.”
The budget actually provides just $566 million more for K-12 education that it would get in the next two years under current law — after making such cuts as the suspension of a voter-passed initiative to pay teachers more, and smaller additions for such areas as dropout prevention and failing schools. But Alexander said it’s about $1.5 billion more than is being spent in the current two-year period.
In other areas, besides expanding Medicaid, Republicans said they would find money by cutting lifetime welfare eligibility to four years from five and eliminating the Housing and Essential Needs voucher program for the poor. They would also find about $80 million in new revenue by addressing a court decision dealing with taxes on phone service.
It would actually increase money spent on preschool and college, Alexander said.
Republicans say that education should be funded before other programs and in a separate budget — hence the lack of specificity on other spending areas. But the House budget chairman, Democrat Ross Hunter, criticized the plan in a news release for being incomplete.
Hunter also took aim at the plan for leaving too small of a cushion– likely to turn into red ink after next week’s revenue forecast — and failing to make enough of a dent in the school-funding shortfall identified by the Supreme Court in its McCleary decision. “The House GOP proposal ignores key elements of the costs identified by the court, shifts significant costs into future biennia and is consequently unsustainable,” Hunter said.