Politics & Government

Whose numbers are right? Lawmakers disagree about effects of GOP school-funding plan

The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown in 2013.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown in 2013. Staff file

Three different sets of numbers exist to explain how a GOP proposal to fix how Washington pays for schools would affect local school districts.

As of Tuesday, state lawmakers and staffers at the Capitol were still working to agree on which numbers were right, causing Democrats to lash out at Republican leaders for rushing out a plan they said hadn’t been thoroughly vetted.

“We still don’t have the right numbers for the Senate Republicans’ plan,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, an education leader for minority Senate Democrats.

“I think what we saw from the Republican plan is you can’t smash this through the Legislature in five days and think that’s going to work,” Rolfes told reporters Tuesday.

A coalition of mostly Republicans controls the state Senate, while Democrats hold a slim majority in the state House. Each side has released its own plan to try to address a state Supreme Court order requiring the state to fully fund public schools by 2018.

Although Democrats haven’t specified how they’d pay for their plan, Republican leaders have suggested implementing a new statewide property tax that would replace local school-district property tax levies. The Senate plan would also switch to a new per-pupil funding model that would award money based on a district’s number of students, instead of school staffing levels.

Yet how much the Senate plan would affect property taxes for homeowners in each of the state’s 295 school districts has remained the topic of intense debate at the Capitol, as has how the GOP plan would change the amount of funding the state provides to individual school districts.

Democratic lawmakers had previously alleged the Republican plan would cut funding for many school districts. But last week, the budget office of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said that it had completed an in-depth analysis showing that no school districts would receive less money under Senate Republicans’ property-tax plan.

Inslee’s budget office found the GOP plan would increase overall school funding by about $109 million per year statewide — not counting an additional $700 million per year that Republicans said they would add on top of that.

The analysis by Inslee’s budget office was even rosier than the one Senate Republicans used to promote their own plan a few weeks ago.

When releasing their plan in late January, GOP budget leaders said their new statewide property tax would raise about $2 billion per two-year budget cycle, while reducing local school district levies by $2.4 billion statewide during the same period. Republican leaders said they would make up the difference in local school district funding levels with backfill payments of about $1.4 billion every two years.

A separate analysis prepared by nonpartisan House staff last week contained another set of numbers, but still estimated that the amount of money the state pays districts per pupil would increase under the Senate Republican plan.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and the Senate’s chief budget writer, said nonpartisan staff informed him last Monday that there might be an issue with the Senate’s calculations. That was after the Senate already passed the school-funding plan off the floor, and the same day the proposal was heard in the House Appropriations Committee.

Democratic lawmakers criticized Braun on Tuesday for not informing them of the errors in the Senate’s analysis early last week.

But Braun said he didn’t withhold information. Rather, he said he was just working with staff to ensure the new numbers are right — and agreed upon — before they are released.

Braun said the various models of how the Senate education plan would affect each school district aren’t necessarily right or wrong, but just based on different budgeting assumptions.

He said he hopes to have updated numbers as soon as Wednesday that will reflect a consensus between nonpartisan House and Senate staffers, as well as Inslee’s budget office.

“This is a very complicated animal … it’s fair to look at it from different perspectives,” Braun said Tuesday. “That doesn’t make their answer right or wrong, it just makes it different.”

He said Democrats were “in attack mode” because they haven’t presented a way to pay for their school funding plan, which is estimated to cost about $2 billion more than the Republican plan over the next four years.

“It’s easy to attack a plan when you don’t have a plan,” Braun said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1