OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee surprised lawmakers Tuesday with a call to give public schools $200 million in new funding, with a portion earmarked for the first cost-of-living increase for teachers in five years.
During a noontime State of the State Address, Inslee also pressed lawmakers to pass a transportation package and increase the state’s minimum wage by as much as $2.50 an hour. Today the minimum wage in Washington is $9.32 per hour.
Inslee had not intended to push for a major investment in education until 2015, but he changed course after the state Supreme Court on Friday scolded lawmakers for moving too slowly to fully fund basic education as required by the state constitution.
“Promises don’t educate our children. Promises don’t build our economy and promises don’t satisfy our constitutional and moral obligations,” Inslee told a joint session of both chambers of the Legislature.
“We need to stop downplaying the significance of this court action. Education is the one paramount duty inscribed in our constitution,” Inslee said.
Regarding education funding, the first-term Democratic governor will propose closing tax breaks to generate the revenue, a change he sought without much success last year. He didn’t spell out which tax breaks he will seek to close.
“You can expect that again I will bring forward tax exemptions that I think fall short when weighed against the needs of our schools,” according to the remarks provided in advance of his speech.
The lack of details frustrated Republicans. Several said they think the governor may need to toss out the supplemental budget proposal he gave them before the session began and turn in something new explaining how he wants to raise the money and where he wants to spend it.
“Honestly, it all boils down to exactly what are we going to do to find that kind of money?” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “The only way you can find that kind of money is to raise taxes.”
Meanwhile, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said he was encouraged by the governor’s change of heart.
But, Dorn said, what the governor proposes won’t be enough to fully fund basic education by the 2017 school year, as required by the state’s high court.
“I’m for anything that will put new revenue in the system,” Dorn said.
On transportation, Inslee urged lawmakers to find common ground in time to reach agreement before this year’s 60-day session ends in March. The House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate is controlled by Republicans.
The House passed a package last year but it did not receive a vote in the Senate, due to GOP opposition. Inslee on Tuesday made Republicans uncomfortable when he said “the next logical step” would be for the Senate to approve a package “that actually has 25 votes.”
“The goal cannot be for everyone to get everything they want. Instead, we must get agreement on what our state needs,” the governor said.
“If education is the heart of our economy, then transportation is the backbone. That’s why we need a transportation investment package,” he said. “The goal cannot be for everyone to get everything they want. Instead, we must get agreement on what our state needs.”
Inslee said he wasn’t sure how much the minimum wage should climb but knows it needs to be higher than it is today.
“I don’t have the exact number today for what our minimum wage should be,” he said. “It won’t be a number that remedies 50 years of income inequality. But I believe that an increase in the range of $1.50 to $2.50 an hour is a step toward closing the widening economic gap.”
As he spoke, several liberal House Democrats stood and applauded while many Republicans shook their head in what could only be viewed as disappointment.
“I think ‘Wow’ was the right reaction,” said Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which would likely consider such a bill.
The minimum wage issue has been prominent in Washington state politics recently.
In November voters in the airport city of SeaTac narrowly approved a measure granting a $15 an hour minimum wage for many workers. The measure applied to workers at the airport and related industries, like hotels and rental car companies.
But a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the law applied to about 1,600 hotel and parking lot workers in SeaTac, but not to employees and contractors working within Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is operated by the Port of Seattle.
Seattle officials have been exploring the possibility of raising the minimum wage there to as high as $15 an hour. Earlier this month newly-elected Mayor Ed Murray directed his department leaders to come up with a strategy for paying city employees more. A preliminary budget analysis showed the move to a $15 hourly wage for city workers would cost Seattle about $700,000 in additional payroll and benefit costs.
About 600 city workers now earn less than $15 an hour, including ushers, cashiers and attendants. There are about 10,000 city employees.
Murray, a former state senator who won the mayoral election with about 52 percent of the vote, campaigned on hiking the city’s overall minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of his four-year term.
The governor also called for reform that would ensure businesses pay no business-and-occupation tax if they earn less than $50,000 in revenue in a year.
The Associated Press contributed. Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.