Senate budget writers give schools a boost

OLYMPIA – In a Senate known for its partisan feuding, Republican and Democratic budget writers stood together Monday to propose spending a few more dollars on public schools but not give teachers a cost of living increase sought by the governor.

Their plan adds millions of dollars for mental health services and higher wages for child care providers, but does not fund two aerospace-related initiatives in Snohomish County which Gov. Jay Inslee considered important to convincing the Boeing Co. to land its 777S program in the state.

Overall, the Senate adds $96 million in new spending to the $33.6 billion in the two-year budget approved in June.

About 40 percent of the new dollars are earmarked for schools to edge the state a little closer to fully funding basic education by 2018 as required by the courts. However, senators rejected the governor’s idea of raising $200 million for schools by closing tax breaks.

Senators stressed Monday that the supplemental budget is not the place for such major fiscal moves. Rather, they said it is intended only as a tool for minor tweaks and additions to the two-year budget the Legislature approved last year.

“It is not a second bite of the apple,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and lead budget writer for the Senate Majority Coalition.

The Senate could vote on the plan as early as Thursday, Hill said.

House Democrats will unveil their budget proposal this week, possibly Wednesday. Once approved, budget writers in the two chambers, and the governor, will negotiate a final deal before the session is scheduled to end March 13.

The supplemental budget released by Inslee in December contained roughly $250 million in new spending. In January he called for pouring $200 million more a year into public schools of which $74 million was for a cost-of-living increase for teachers, the first such wage adjustment in five years.

His suggestion of erasing or revising several tax breaks to generate the dollars has largely been ignored by lawmakers.

The Senate proposal “acknowledges the pressing need to address our constitutional obligation to basic education” but does not go far enough, Inslee said in a statement. “I urge the House to make a more substantial investment in education — one that does more to provide our students with the classroom tools they need and restores cost-of-living raises for our teachers.”

Senators said Monday they agreed to leave big-ticket items related to school funding to the next two-year budget.

“There was a decision early on to decouple the education discussion from the budget discussion,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Islands.

Senate budget writers also did not include $500,000 for Washington State University to establish a School of Advanced Manufacturing and Aerospace in Everett, or $500,000 for the University of Washington to develop an advanced manufacturing facility in Snohomish County.

Nor did the Senate budget include money for WSU to offer a new degree program in software engineering through the University Center on the campus of Everett Community College. It does, however, pay for additional engineering enrollment slots at Central Washington and Eastern Washington universities.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, was disappointed at the exclusion of the aerospace initiatives but said it’s a “work in progress” and there’s time to get money added in.

“Overall I think this is a good conversation starter,” he said. “We know it’s a supplemental (budget) year so it’s a no-frills approach.”

The Senate plan puts $38.2 million into technology for public schools and roughly $45 million into higher education. That includes $5 million for the State Need Grant program as part of the Real Hope Act, making undocumented immigrant students eligible to receive financial aid. Inslee plans to sign the act into law Wednesday.

It also puts in $25.5 million to fund negotiated pay hikes for child care providers in licensed family homes and centers, and $7 million to improve home and community-based mental health services for youth, as required under a recent court settlement.

And there is even $1.4 million for the Department of Revenue and the state Liquor Control Board to add employees and beef up security equipment at three locations where tax payments are expected to be made in cash from licensed recreational marijuana producers, processors and retailers.

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

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