Bertha, Washington’s tenacious tunnel-digging machine, churned through her last few feet of dirt this week and triumphantly emerged near Seattle Center, having burrowed 1.7 miles in four years. It was a plodding journey, plagued by mechanical breakdowns, that took 29 months longer than planned.
This state highway-tunnel excavation project should offer hope to slow-moving behemoths everywhere: Don’t give up. Stay the course. Someday, you will reach daylight.
That means you, too, 2017 Washington Legislature.
It must be hard to see light at the end of the tunnel, especially after party leaders in the divided statehouse recently released two starkly different blueprints for the two-year operating budget. As usual, K-12 education funding is where the gears grind loudest in Olympia.
Republicans who control the Senate went first, unveiling a $1.8 billion property tax scheme they contend will finally meet a 2012 state Supreme Court order to fully fund basic education. Senate leaders would increase state property taxes in exchange for wiping out local school levies — a tradeoff that would benefit property owners in low-value communities and put more tax burden on high-value property owners (read: liberal King County).
Democrats in charge of the House upped the ante last week. They called for $1.9 billion in new school funding while pumping up other government programs, all paid for with a whopping $3 billion in tax increases (but no property tax hike to penalize liberal King County).
The tax-averse GOP doesn’t like the Democrats’ plan to impose a capital-gains tax, in addition to raising business-and-occupation taxes on big companies and excise taxes on expensive homes.
Likewise, Democrats aren’t keen on proposed Republican cuts to the state safety net, nor the dismantling of pay raises that Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee negotiated with public employees.
There also are legitimate questions about how much extra money, or “net new funding,” the Senate budget would actually funnel into schools — and whether it would meet the constitutional mandate to “make ample provision for the education of all children” — since the GOP plan hinges on swapping state money for local levy dollars.
Two very different budgets. Two divergent sets of priorities and principles. And a bit more than two weeks left to find common ground before the 2017 legislative session must adjourn, thus triggering a series of special sessions that could chew up time like Bertha chewed through waterlogged dirt.
Compromises must be made on both sides, some painful.
Here are two specific qualms we have:
▪ Senate Republicans would unwisely surrender control of their school funding plan by sending it to the general election ballot, effectively giving voters veto power over a complex formula that took months if not years to work out.
This is an abdication of the tough decisions we elect legislators to make. It’s the ultimate example of the populist buck-passing that has infected governments including the Pierce County Council. And it’s low-hanging fruit for Tim Eyman and his ilk, who never met a tax they didn’t want to crush.
Furthermore, making students, families and school employees wait for certainty until November — four months after the state budget goes into effect — is irresponsible.
▪ House Democrats focus on ample school funding, but their plan doesn’t go far enough to address constitutional concerns about equitable funding.
How would their plan fix a system of haves and have-nots fueled by overreliance on local school levies? Mostly, by asking districts to better report how they spend levy money — without adding restrictions. They also would convene a work group to draft recommendations to revise school district accounting practices.
Critics regard these as token gestures, not true levy reform. It’s easy to see why. If districts continue to have few limits on how much they can collect locally, and what they can spend it on, they might very well invite judicial scrutiny beyond the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling.
“That approach will only make McCleary 2.0 inevitable,” Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said this week.
We trust these and other issues will be thoroughly and thoughtfully vetted in the weeks ahead. The same bipartisan spirit that yielded unanimous Senate support for a $3.8 billion capital projects budget last week will surely be needed.
Don’t give up. Stay the course. There’s daylight ahead.
Even if you won’t see it until summer.