By Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
SEATTLE — About a billion dollars separates Senate Republicans from House Democrats on how they believe the Legislature should respond to last year’s Supreme Court ruling on money for Washington schools.
But lawmakers from both parties say the differences are not so far that they won’t be able to work out a compromise before the Legislature goes home this spring.
“We will walk out of here with an agreement,” said Rep. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who is the chair of the Senate Education Committee. “Probably nobody is going to be happy with it. But we will definitely have an agreement.”
Lawmakers from both parties are already working behind the scenes to craft a compromise. Litzow said the hard part is not figuring out how to pay for the reforms mentioned in Supreme Court’s decision on a school funding lawsuit known as the McCleary case.
“The harder part is probably finding out how to fund non-education stuff,” said Litzow, R-Mercer Island.
Lawmakers don’t agree — even within their own parties — about what to pay for first, where to get the money and how much of a down payment toward an estimated $4.5 billion the state will likely add to K-12 education dollars by 2018.
Rep. Ross Hunter, who as chair of the Ways and Means Committee is the House’s top budget writers, believes Republicans and Democrats are further apart on these issue than Litzow thinks.
Hunter, D-Medina, estimates this year’s down payment on the McCleary decision will total $1.7 billion.
Litzow says they’re looking for between $500,000 and $1.5 billion. Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, estimates lawmakers need to add about $1 billion this year toward a $3 billion total by 2018.
The Washington State Budget &Policy Center agrees with the $4.5 billion estimate, but says the full bill will cost close to $8 billion when all employee expense are transferred back from local to state dollars.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic education. In the past decade, education spending has gone from close to 50 percent to just above 40 percent of the state budget, despite the fact that some education spending is protected by the constitution.
State lawmakers have in recent years been dealing with large budget deficits, and last year cut $300 million in state funding. The Supreme Court has given the Legislature until 2018 to fix the problem, but wants to see progress every year until then.
Hunter said the disagreements aren’t just about money.
“I don’t think we fundamentally agree on the responsibility,” he said.
He said some of the billion dollar difference between the Senate Republicans and House Democrats comes from Republican lawmakers who want to avoid the part of the court ruling that deals with local levy money paying for things that are a state responsibility, like administrator salaries.
For example, some school districts use local levy dollars make up the difference between what the state gives them for principal or superintendent salaries and what they need to pay in order to attract good candidates.
Hunter and the lawyers representing the coalition of school districts, parents, educators and community groups that brought the McCleary lawsuit interpret the Supreme Court ruling to mean the state needs to stop depending on local dollars to make up for basic education expenses.
If you’re serious about funding basic education, you can’t allow local school districts to depend on local dollars, Hunter said.
Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said his party is not ready to agree on what should be done about local levies and he says some of the Legislature’s reform plan is just teacher and administrator raises disguised as education reform.
He opposes plans proposed by Hunter and others to replace local levies with a statewide education property tax, but would like to do away with grandfathering provisions of current levy law that let some districts raise more money from school levies than others.
The Supreme Court has ordered a yearly progress report on McCleary and will have the final say on whether the Legislature is doing the work the court ordered.
“The court’s pretty clear with their interpretation of the constitution. I think we need to comply,” Hunter said.
He said he was still working on ideas about how to pay for the increase in education dollars. Lawmakers won’t be making their budget proposals until after March state revenue forecasts are posted.
“We’re going to fight about this,” Hunter said. “It’s a $32 billion budget. It’s not a trivial undertaking.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes has proposed a bill that sets a plan for implementing the education reforms agreed to by previous lawmakers — from all-day kindergarten to smaller class sizes and an expanded high school day. She said she has met with Litzow to talk about McCleary and predicts both parties will get to the table eventually to work out a compromise.
“I’m hoping that the gulf isn’t as big as it looks,” Rolfes said.
She expects some political posturing and debate, but adds, “At a certain point the parties have to get over themselves.”