Leaders of the Republican-steered Senate and Democrat-controlled House continued talks on a two-year state budget Wednesday, but neither chamber’s budget plan for K-12 public schools measures up to the state Supreme Court’s mandate in the McCleary case.
That’s the opinion of state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn, who thinks lawmakers must put in about $1.4 billion in new money this year to avoid getting into a scrape with justices, who retained jurisdiction in the McCleary case. So far, $1 billion is the best offer still on the table and Dorn says he doesn’t think lawmaker shave the “stomach” to approve the tax increases needed to do the job.
“I would say they have not made (substantial) progress and the $1 billion is an unconstitutional budget because they are not meeting their paramount duty, and they should be called back to propose a budget (that does),” Dorn told The Olympian Editorial Board on Wednesday. “If I get called from the court and they want my opinion, to me – if it’s $1 billion – no this is not ‘substantial progress.’ It is progress but it’s not substantial.”
In a bid to end the legislative deadlock, the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition said Tuesday it was dropping its insistence on policy reforms and wanted the Democrat-controlled House to drop its insistence on closing tax breaks that would be earmarked for schools. Sen. Andy Hill, the Redmond Republican writing the Senate budget, said there is enough new revenue in the budget – he estimated $2.8 billion more than in the 2011-13 biennium – to hit the Senate’s $1 billion target for schools without additional tax increases.
The idea outlined by Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom and Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler is that lawmakers, now in their second week of a second special session, need to strike a deal based on those revenues and go home until January.
Even Dorn has warned that without quick action by Friday, schools could lose $45 million in funds.
Dorn also has said that the state needs to boost its investment by $4.1 billion into K-12 schools, including taking over full funding of employee salaries and transportation costs rather than relying on local levies. It is based on that and the court giving the state three biennia to get to that goal that Dorn says $1.4 billion is a minimum the state should do this year in order to show the court it is making a suitable down payment on solving the problem.
Longer term he thinks there needs to be a discussion of a way to shift the current school levy burden to the state.
Dorn said it’s not about him passing judgment on the Legislature – it’s what the court, which retained jurisdiction in the school-funding case, thinks.
Some lawmakers have mocked Dorn’s approach to always ask for more spending at levels lawmakers cannot get votes.
In the superintendent’s view, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee came close to an adequate down payment with his proposal for $1.3 billion in new investments this year, and the Democrat-controlled House at one time was suggesting similar amounts. But the Republican-steered Senate’s latest plan is around $1 billion and the House, which at one time proposed $1.3 billion, is now closer to $700 million.
What remains to be seen is whether the House Democrats’ proposal to raise at least $208 million more by closing a series of tax breaks can survive against the no-more-taxes position in the Senate.
Despite the differences, Tuesday’s new revenue forecast made it more likely the two sides will come to agreement soon.
Dorn said House Democrats are showing a willingness to take the risk with voters of doing the right thing by taking votes to raise taxes and preserve other programs that help education but are not part of basic education. He also thinks the tax system is ripe for an overhaul that is better tied to changes in the economy that have evolved over many years, and that he and Treasurer Jim McIntire are looking into starting that public conversation.
At the same time, Dorn acknowledged there is public resistance to raising taxes, which he considers an inevitability if the state is ever to meet the Supreme Court’s standard for funding basic education.
“I think the public just has to come to the conclusion that … it (is) going to be worth it,” Dorn said. “That’s going to be a real battle. It’s going to be a real fight. And I don’t know right now if the Legislature has that stomach.’’
Dorn, a Democrat who was elected to his nonpartisan post with more than 2 million votes last November, also said he thinks the Senate’s “education first” approach to funding won’t be enough to getting the state to its goal of investing $1 billion new money this year. If schools are to be held accountable for lifting high school graduation rates from about 80 percent today Dorn said the state also must invest into the social safety net that helps the poor and gets kids ready for school.
That is a position taken all year long by House Democrats, including Majority Leader Pat Sullivan.
“If we are to increase that (graduation rate) I need more early learning programs. I need more mental health assistance in the early years and through the social service programs. I need family assistance programs, I need anti poverty programs. I need drug and alcohol programs,’’ Dorn said.
But so far, Dorn said lawmakers on both sides are failing well short of a down payment on the $4 billion biennial increase in school funding needed by 2018 to meet the court’s mandates.
“If you’re going to purchase a car and you’re really going to purchase it, you make a down payment. If you’re just holding a place for it you make a deposit,’’ Dorn said. “It sounds like they’ll be at about $1 billion. … It’s a deposit. It’s not a down payment. … They are not even meeting their own joint task force recommendation.’’