Politics & Government

Could brain drain at state Capitol delay court-ordered school-funding fix?

The state Legislative Building in Olympia.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia. Staff file

Washington’s school-funding problem has been 40 years in the making, but it’s one state lawmakers have committed to finally solving next year.

Yet due to recent elections, retirements and an unexpected death, lawmakers will be trying to overhaul the state’s school-funding system in 2017 with new people in charge of the state budget, and without some of the lawmakers who have been the most immersed in the nuances of school finance the past few years.

The recent death of state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, leaves the state Senate without its chief budget writer, while the Democratic-controlled House also will have someone new leading the budget-writing process.

“It’s both an opportunity and a challenge, candidly, because we have a lot of really talented and smart people who are no longer doing this work,” said Chris Korsmo, the CEO of the League of Education Voters, a Seattle-based education advocacy group.

In the McCleary school-funding case, lawmakers are under a court order to fully fund public schools by 2018, which will mean ending the state’s reliance on local school district property taxes to pay teachers and other school employees.

Lawmakers have pledged to come up with a plan to take on those salary costs during the legislative session that begins in January.

...We have a lot of really talented and smart people who are no longer doing this work.

Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters

But heading into 2017, Republicans in particular are losing some of their key education leaders, especially in the GOP-led state Senate.

State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, one of the leaders on recent proposals to revamp school levies, is leaving the Senate to be Pierce County executive, while Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island, the chairman of the Senate education committee, lost his re-election bid this month.

On top of that, state Rep. Chad Magendanz, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, is most likely not returning to the Legislature next year. Magendanz, who gave up his House seat to run for the Senate, was trailing Friday in his race to unseat state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah.

For their part, House Democrats have lost the leadership of former state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who was a chief architect of early proposals for the state to take on basic education costs that are being paid unconstitutionally by local school districts.

Hunter served as the House’s lead budget writer between 2011 and 2015, before leaving to head the state’s Department of Early Learning.

Hunter’s immediate successor, former state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, left the Legislature this year.

“There’s no question there has been a significant brain drain this past year, with some really talented education leaders leaving the Legislature,” said state Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, who is the majority floor leader in the state Senate.

At the same time, Fain said, “There are always qualified and diligent people willing to take their place.”

“Some of them may have to study up a little,” he said.

Whether that learning curve will prolong next year’s budget negotiations is “the huge question” on many lawmakers’ minds, said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who serves on a task force grappling with how the Legislature should solve school-funding problems.

There’s no question there has been a significant brain drain this past year, with some really talented education leaders leaving the Legislature.

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn

Senate Democrats, too, are losing their top budget negotiator with the retirement of state Sen. Jim Hargrove, who worked with Dammeier, Rolfes and others last year on a bipartisan proposal to reform the use of local school-district property taxes.

Rolfes said the loss of Dammeier, in particular, could make negotiations harder between Democrats and Republicans because he was a “good diplomat” who worked across the aisle on education issues.

Others said the people in line to lead the budget-writing process have been involved enough in past negotiations to ensure a smooth transition.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, a Spokane Democrat who was appointed this year to lead the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, has been the vice chairman of the committee for the past few years.

And state Sen. John Braun, a Centralia Republican expected to succeed Hill as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means and Committee, already has been a key budget negotiator, especially during the last legislative session when Hill became sick, said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

“While Sen. Hill was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, I think we have a very capable person waiting to assume that role,” Schoesler said.

Additional help could come if Republican Party officials in King County select former state Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, as one of the options to replace Hill.

Rossi, who served as Senate budget writer in the early 2000s before unsuccessfully running for governor, said he would be willing to serve as a temporary replacement for Hill.

If he were appointed, Rossi said he wouldn’t lead the budget-writing process or run to retain the Senate seat next fall, but he said he could offer some advice in the meantime.

“I would be willing to do what I could to help Sen. Braun,” Rossi said.

Even if legislative leaders can agree on a plan, however, getting rank-and-file lawmakers to support a McCleary fix will still be a challenge, said state Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

It is going to be a lot of give and take on both sides.

State Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee

High turnover among members of the Legislature only compounds that difficulty, especially when dealing with a topic as complex as school finance, she said.

In the past, fully funding school employee salaries has proved complicated in part because many lawmakers think it must involve raising the statewide property tax, while lowering local school district levies by a proportionate amount.

Depending on how such a so-called levy swap plan is executed, it could cause overall property taxes to rise in some areas even as property taxes elsewhere go down.

That makes reform proposals not only hard to grasp, but also politically difficult for some lawmakers to stomach, Lytton said.

“At the end of the day, I have to get 50 votes (in the House), and where am I going to find it in a very complicated world that is very divided?” Lytton said.

“It is going to be a lot of give and take on both sides,” she said.

Dammeier said some new ideas and new leadership could be what the Legislature needs to finally solve the school-funding problem. He said fresh eyes could help craft a more simplified system, “which could be a good thing.”

Hunter, the former House Democratic budget writer, said turnover is an expected part of having a part-time citizen Legislature.

“We should not have the hubris to think we are irreplaceable,” he said.