McKenna’s plan would give schools $1.25 billion more

TACOMA — Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna on Tuesday sought to paint a clearer picture of how he would steer billions of additional dollars into public schools and colleges without raising taxes or axing major social service and health care programs.

Armed with spreadsheets, the two-term attorney general told reporters he can come up with $1.25 billion more for elementary and secondary schools and $436 million for higher education in the next budget primarily by redirecting money from non-education programs into classrooms.

He said he would impose hard limits on what every department spends, pay less of the health care tab of state workers and not fill every vacant government job, using any savings for students.

Another key element of his blueprint is adoption of a controversial scheme to give local school districts a greater share of the state’s property tax levy.

Taking those steps, he said, will go a long way to providing a stable, uniform and ample supply of funding for public schools as required by a state Supreme Court ruling issued earlier this year.

“This is a lot more stable than what we’ve been doing, and I think it meets the Supreme Court test. Our proposal is clearly better and stronger that what would happen” if the status quo continued, he said.

All in all, McKenna didn’t roll out a bunch of new ideas with reporters Tuesday. Rather, he added a bit of heft to the skeletal education funding plan he put out earlier in the campaign, criticized by opponents as mostly wishful thinking.

Not surprisingly, the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee, bashed this latest version.

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith issued a statement saying McKenna “continues to campaign in an alternate reality” and called the updated plan “as phony as his first.”

“The formula he uses wouldn’t generate the funding he claims for years, all the while critically underfunding essential services for children,” she said. “It’s more empty promises from Rob McKenna.”

For his part, Inslee has said he will find more money for education by trimming wasteful spending, lowering health care costs and generating revenue from a revived economy. He’s opposed new taxes and not taken a position on the levy swap idea.

Education funding is a central issue in this year’s campaign since the high court concluded in January that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education.

In the so-called McCleary decision, justices gave state lawmakers until 2018 to fix the way the state pays for education.

State budget officials are estimating the cost of compliance will start out at around $500 million a year in the budget that begins July 1, 2013 and rise to around $2 billion a year by 2018.

McKenna got into the weeds Tuesday in explaining how his plan could meet those obligations and prevent future declines in state aid for public schools.

In a nutshell, he would limit spending in non-education programs to 6 percent per two-year budget to free up several hundred million dollars a year. However, he could not say specifically from which departments and programs those savings would come.

He’s also counting on state revenues climbing 9 percent per biennium.

McKenna said his goal is for the state to spend 48 percent of its budget on K-12 programs by 2019; the current level is 44 percent. Also, by that time, he wants the size of classes for kindergarten through third grade to be 17 students per teacher and all-day kindergarten available statewide.

And he said his proposal would allow higher education funding to be increased every year.

McKenna constructed his plan with the help of Dan McDonald, a former state senator who ran the Senate budget committee in his tenure.

The onetime lawmaker acknowledged there are plenty of political challenges to carrying it out.

“This gets you to where you want to be and the numbers work,” he said. “And I think it’s very reasonable to say, look, higher ed and K-12 have been taking the brunt for a long time. We’re going to grow them faster than the rest of state government.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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