Three-and-a-half billion dollars.
It’s the price tag for implementing enhancements to how we pay for public education in Washington, something the state is trying to do because it wants to and because it has to.
It wants to because the first thing out of the mouth of any politician in Washington is that public education is his or her top priority. It has to because the state Supreme Court just found the state in violation of the constitutional demand that it make ample provision for the education of all children.
What the state can do is yet to be determined.
In January, the court told legislators and the governor that they had until 2018 to fix the problem and do so with “dependable and regular tax sources.” No moving money around or identifying quick fixes that might just lead everyone back into court in a decade or two.
The justices didn’t require a tax increase, exactly. But meeting the terms of the McCleary decision would require deep cuts in other areas of state government if new revenues are not included.
Whether future legislatures and governors can accomplish the task is still to be determined because it will require difficult decisions, decisions that surely will cost some politicians their jobs. That tends to make everyone uncomfortable.
Even for state government, $3.5 billion is a lot of money. Of that total, $1.5 billion is the cost of improvements already approved – but not yet funded – by the Legislature for class-size reductions in early grades, all-day kindergarten and more money for school busing and operating costs.
An additional $2 billion is the price tag for a draft recommendation on teacher compensation including higher pay for beginning teachers, regional salary differentials in high-cost districts, regular cost-of-living raises and teacher mentors.
All that would come on top of the $6.8 billion a year the state already dedicates to the public schools. The increased appropriations alone would be a more than 20 percent increase in a total state budget that has been declining or level each year for five years.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter said he is eager to tackle the problem. He does not sound optimistic.
“There is an intersection between whether I can lock myself in a closet and come up with an ideal solution, and whether I can get 76 votes,” he said. Seventy-six is the sum of 50 House votes plus 25 Senate votes plus the governor.
And if a tax increase is necessary, and if the same Supreme Court justices who ordered the politicians to spend more refuse once again to decide whether the two-thirds requirement for tax increases is constitutional, the number of votes needed goes up.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has been proving lately that being a lame duck can be liberating. Because she is unlikely to face voters again, she can speak more frankly than ever. This month, she said there is no way the state can meet its moral duty to its kids and meet the demands of the court without a tax increase dedicated to schools.
“There is simply not enough money in our current revenue stream to keep up with the cost of educating our young people so they can compete in the 21st century,” she said.
She won’t be the governor when this gets addressed. But she doesn’t seem impressed by the ideas of the men who want to replace her. Republican Rob McKenna says new taxes are not needed because the state economy will recover, and he would dedicate most of the natural growth from current taxes to education. Democrat Jay Inslee says new taxes are not needed because he’d do what McKenna would do with all that new money from current taxes and then he’d close corporate tax loopholes.
No one expects either candidate to call for new taxes. Whichever one did would be eviscerated by the other, and it might make the difference between winning and losing. That’s American politics. But neither proposal consists of regular and dependable tax sources as the court ordered and neither is likely to be adequate.
The most we can expect for now is that neither candidate locks himself into a political position that may make it impossible to meet the court’s order or solve the firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8657 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @CallaghanPeter