Democratic state budget proposal would restore raises for teachers

OLYMPIA — House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a supplemental budget package that seeks to restore cost-of-living increases for teachers and puts additional money into education, while closing four tax exemptions, including one that grants a sales tax break to some out-of-state shoppers.

The more than $200 million proposal was released in two pieces. The underlying $173 million budget has $60 million for books, technology and supplies in K-12 classrooms, and $10 million to improve community mental health services, including $8.2 million in response to a settlement that requires the state to expand mental health services for children.

The supplemental budget makes adjustments to the $33.6 billion, two-year state operating budget approved by the Legislature last year.

“It’s a modest budget,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, the main budget writer for House Democrats.

But separate legislation also announced Wednesday seeks to spend about $51 million to restore teachers’ voter-approved cost-of-living raises, which have been suspended for the last few budget cycles, and also looks to spend an additional $16.5 million on early learning programs. Though not listed in the spending plan, Hunter said that those measures will be part of the budget that is expected to be passed by the House next week.

The additional spending would be paid for, in part, by $100 million that the state would gain by closing four tax exemptions, including the out-of-state sales tax one, another own timber product waste claimed by oil refineries and one on sales tax on bottled water.

Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said that with the state Supreme Court’s latest order telling lawmakers to submit a complete plan by the end of April detailing how the state will fully pay for basic education, “it really changed the way we moved forward.”

“That court order said we needed to make additional progress,” he said.

In 2012, the high court ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation concerning education funding. That ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents and education groups, known as the McCleary case for the family named in the suit. The court has required yearly progress reports from the Legislature on its efforts. Those reports are then critiqued by the group that brought the lawsuit and by the Supreme Court.

When asked about the challenges of closing tax exemptions with just a few weeks left in the legislative session, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said that “at the end of the day we have no choice but to acknowledge that we live in a post-McCleary era.”

“The old fashioned stereotypes and cliches of yesterday about more and more and more tax preferences versus getting smarter and rigorous and investing in early learning, those days are over,” he said.

The proposal comes just days after the Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate proposed a supplementary budget that looks to put additional money into education, but also would create or expand several tax exemptions, not close them.

Sen. Andy Hill, a Republican from Redmond who is the key budget writer in the Senate, said that both the House and Senate budget proposals prioritize education. He said that while the discussion on tax exemptions and cost-of-living raises may be difficult with only a few weeks left in the session, on the underlying supplemental budget, he said, “we’re not that far off.”

Also introduced Wednesday was a bipartisan construction budget proposal that would sell $700 million in bonds backed by lottery money for grants dedicated to building classrooms for all-day kindergarten and for reduction of class sizes for kindergarten through third grade.

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